A Peek Behind the Curtain: Your Customer’s Perception of Value

“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.


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?

*Photo source


  1. Samantha Gluck

    What a fantastic story, Tom. I read the very same article you read about the work and labor that goes in to a person’s 10 minute doctor visit. I couldn’t agree with you more — in most cases, transparency is the way to go in business.

    As a freelance journalist, I’ve had similar experiences when negotiating with certain potential clients. Most of them know that I can write their story/assignment in X number of hours. What they don’t know is that there’s a lot of preparation and leg work that goes into preparing to write a feature story. I have to research the topic and find current, timely information about any issues associated with it. Then I have to track down and schedule interviews with authoritative sources. Once that’s all done, I must compile all the interview notes, research notes, and any anecdotal information I collected into a well organized, coherent feature story that hooks readers in and keeps them reading until the end.

    Therein lies the rub — for the client. They can either hire me and have it done right, or hire someone who just decided to hang out their “I’m a writer” shingle who’ll do the job for far less money, but with far fewer resources, experience, and skill. Every time I explain it this way to the client, he or she goes with me, pays my rate, and is happy about it.

    • Tom

      Great example, Samantha. And it’s always such a good feeling to do business with people who truly appreciate and value what you do for them. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is so true… and we owe it to clients to make sure they know what they are getting for the money.

  2. Charlie Wollborg

    Great post, Tom. Love this example!

    Along the same lines, Martha Stewart built her reputation by sharing her recipes and designs. Penn and Teller often reveal how they do a trick and it only makes you respect their talent more.

    Watch Penn & Teller “spoil” the magic of the body in a box trick:

    We’re spent years developing our expertise and our networks. Sometimes, we make it look too easy. Take your customer back stage and they’ll have a new respect for your craft and your affordability.

    • Tom

      Thanks, Charlie, for the comment and the link (awesome!). Good point about making things look easy. Sometimes we do ourselves a disservice in the process.



  1. Robert-Houdin | Magic | Wizard of Oz | Behind the Curtain | The Common Uncommonly - [...] I’m over at Eli Rose Social Media today comparing my clients (and yours) to Algerian natives.  It’ll make more…

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