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How to be honest: An interview with MailChimp UX lead Aarron Walter

In 2000, multinational oil company BP began a re-branding campaign aimed at positioning the company as a forward-thinking energy company that was actively pursuing a world "beyond petroleum." A new green logo and a rush of TV commercials followed shortly after.

Critics found no shortage of fodder from BP's campaign. The company was accused of "greenwashing" from the outset, and in 2010 the image of BP as an environmentally-sound alternative to other energy companies was shattered by the Deepwater Horizon spill -- the largest of its kind in history.

What does this have to do with web design and development? A lot, according to Aarron Walter, UX design lead at MailChimp.

Walter is presenting a talk at Future Insights Live on "Honest Customer Relationships," an approach to communicating with customers that weaves through nearly every activity of the business, including UX and social media platforms. The purpose, according to Walter, is to understand why communicating honestly with your customers (as opposed to BP's superficial marketing effort) is so important and how to get there.

“Companies that are scared to be honest, or they have a dark streak in them, are going to be forced to shift,” he says. “The right way to do this is with a great deal of honesty and sincerity — sharing your personality and humanity to create a connection with your audience.”

An honest customer relationship isn't limited to telling your customers the truth. It's about defining the "voice" of your company and letting your employees do the talking -- whether they're in marketing, customer service, IT, sales, or an internal business function. It's about forging real human connections by telling personal stories.

And it's about more than establishing a presence on Twitter.

"Sometimes we get so excited about the technology that we lose sight of what it is empowering us to do, which is talk to a lot of people and build real relationships with people," he says.

The data support the benefits of dealing with customers with honesty and sincerity, Walter says. He plans to present several case studies of companies that managed to tell their stories well and were able to measure real benefits. He cites General Electric as a prime example of a large company that is able to tell intimate personal stories that make lasting connections with customers. (See below)


So why don't more companies deal honestly with their customers? For some it may be fear of a litigious society ready to pounce on any mistake. Others may be hampered by large, slow-moving bureaucracies and snarls of red tape.

Regardless, Walter says every company needs to pay close attention to how it relates to customers, since the barrier to entry in nearly every industry is shrinking. Companies that "get" the value of honest relationships can easily compete, even in established fields like banking or energy.

"We live in a pretty unique time right now because there’s so many resources at our fingertips. It’s not that hard to start your own business or start your own competitive product," he says. "The barbarians are at the gates of Rome."

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