“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

It’s a memorable scene from a timeless movie: the great and powerful Wizard of Oz is revealed to be nothing more than an ordinary man. Not his finest hour.

For many of us, though, allowing a peek behind the curtain might just be a good idea.

Robert-Houdin

It took a magician to bring transparency into politics.

Take Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a 19th-century French magician (and the reason Ehrich Weiss changed his name to Harry Houdini). A successful magician, Robert-Houdin was pulled out of retirement by the French government and sent to Algeria to help quell a rebellion. How? By convincing the locals that French magic was superior to that of their tribal leaders. Robert-Houdin did just that, displaying several tricks that caused residents to think he was the devil. But then… he went even further. As he recounted in his memoirs, Robert-Houdin had translators explain how he accomplished his feats, gaining him the admiration of tribal elders (and undermining the local sorcerers in the process).

I was reminded of this story recently when reading a medical blog. The author, Mary Pat Whaley, describes an interaction in which the patient objected to a fee on the grounds that the doctor only spent ten minutes in the exam room. The title of the post says it all: “Your 10 minute office visit needs 8 people and 45 minutes of work”. It’s a brief but eye-opening look at what drives healthcare costs even for a basic visit. For anyone who deals with customers, it’s also an important reminder of the gap between perceived service delivery and actual service delivery – and whether clients really know what they’re paying for.

I had the opportunity to apply this approach myself last month after sending a proposal to a client for a 2012 customer research study. He called to ask why the price for the study was almost identical to a very similar project we’d completed in 2011. His specific objection was that the survey instrument would be very similar, so he expected that there would be much less time put into the 2012 project.

As I thought this over from his perspective, I realized that the handful of hours we spent on the phone together hashing out survey content represented the client’s only real exposure to the research process. The other 200 hours of project management, data analysis, and reporting were essentially invisible to the client because he wasn’t directly involved. So I spent a few minutes taking him through the workflow process from a cost perspective to explain why the study price didn’t change as much as he’d expected.

By the end of the call, not only was he comfortable with the pricing, he also had a greater appreciation for the quantity and quality of work that went into the entire project… not just the part he was directly involved in. And I had gained a new respect for the power of transparency.

How about you? Are you willing to let your customers peek behind the curtain? Or even better, give them a guided tour?

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