My coffee maker was on the fritz and the thermometer read -9 degrees Fahrenheit last Friday morning when I arrived – under caffeinated and frankly pretty grumpy — on the doorstep of the auto dealer I’ve used to service my car for the last few years. One of my headlamps had burnt out, and while replacing the bulbs is usually a pretty quick fix and one I’ve handled myself previously, I decided to seek professional help due to the freezing weather.

What I ended up getting was an object lesson in how today’s age of radical transparency and the availability of digital information can impact a business.

As Tony, the service consultant at the dealer, pulled up my records and started the paperwork, he mentioned that replacing the bulbs in my headlights would cost almost $200.

“$200? How much do the parts cost?” I asked him. That number sounded really high.

He told me the lamps cost between $20 -$25 each, but the labor involved was considerable, given the fact that the wheels and parts of the fender needed to be removed in order to change the bulbs. He made it sound like A Very Big Deal.

But it also sounded fishy to me. The daughter of an auto parts dealer, I know enough to be a little dangerous. One of my most satisfying life moments was this exchange with a sales manager who was who was trying to sell a fluffy-haired 22 year-old me an over-priced extended care package on my first new car.

Him: “You know, if your carburetor goes kaput in five years, you’re covered.”

Me: “It’s fuel-injected. It doesn’t have a carburetor.”

Back to my story. The point is this: I’ve changed the bulbs on almost every car I’ve owned. And I can assure you, I didn’t have to remove the wheels to get the job done. EVER.

Enter the connected customer

So I did what any connected consumer would do. I whipped out my iPhone and Googled “how to change headlight bulb 2009 Subaru Forester,” and within a second was watching a video of how it’s done. It looked pretty simple, and I held my phone up so Tony could see. He shrugged, saying they took the wheels off to change the bulbs.

By now, I was getting pretty angry. I may be blond, female and (at the time of this incident) suffering from woefully low levels of coffee, but I wasn’t impaired enough to buy the story he was feeding me. I killed the video, consulted Google again, and called another Subaru dealer, located a few suburbs away.

As a few other interested women wandered in from the adjacent waiting room to hear what was going on, I got connected with Johnny from the other dealer’s service department.

“I have a 2009 Forester XLT, and one of the headlamps has burnt out. I’ve replaced bulbs in other cars, but not in this one,” I explained, staring levelly at Tony, who was starting to squirm a bit. “I’m trying to figure out if it’s something I can handle on my own, or if I should bring into the shop.”

“You can do it yourself, but we charge $15.61 for the labor to change a bulb, so you might just want to bring it in,” Johnny told me. “It’s a quick and easy job for us.”

Fifteen dollars and sixty-one cents? At that point, part of my brain short circuited.

“Johnny, let me level with you,” I said, reeling a bit from the huge disparity in potential charges. “I’m standing here in the service department of another dealer, and they’re telling me they have to take the wheels and part of the front end off to change the bulbs, and it’s going to cost me almost $200. What gives?”

There was an uncomfortable silence, then Johnny replied, “Well, it *is* easier if you put the car in the air – that’s what we do. We take the wheels off too, and go up from underneath. But as I said, it’s an easy job for us and takes just a few minutes. We charge $15.61 labor for each bulb replacement. I think your dealer is charging too much.”

I thanked Johnny, told him I’d be there in about an hour, hung up, and told Tony I wanted my car brought back up. It would be well worth my time to drive 15 miles to save over a hundred bucks.

Implications for brands

As I waited for my car, I thought about how transparency burned this particular dealer. Brands simply can’t charge unreasonable prices, or make unreasonable claims in today’s networked information environment. Information, examples and copious feedback are available via the smartphones in our pockets.

Assuming that your customers are uninformed and that you’ll get away with it is a recipe for disaster. There are apps that provide instant access to reviews and can suggest the best repair shops for your make and model of car, which I suspect are going to problematic for my old dealer.

For businesses that have used information asymmetry to their advantage, the transparency evolution will be a particularly rude awakening. Simply put, times are changing, and you can’t bet that your customers are clueless. (Related: App-Armed and YouTube-Educated, Taking Care of My Baby.) In fact, some brands are using information to empower their customers, creating advocates and gaining efficiencies.

Bad service = bad search rank

However, before we even get into the big data argument, there’s another reason why organizations need to abandon models that capitalize upon their customers’ ignorance – these practices are risky, and can result in bad PR, detrimental online reviews and negative buzz. Google has a history of cracking down on bad merchants, sinking their search rankings, and promised last year that they’ll continue to bury bad actors.

Transparency is good PR

Folks in the SEO space have been saying things like “The best SEO is great customer service,” for years now. Their counter parts in social media have a similar corollary: “Want viral social buzz? Start with a great product!” I’m going to create a maxim for PR: “Transparent business practices drive great PR.”

Transparency ensures your front-line staff will never be hamstrung between mission statements that purport to put the customer first, and business practices that do anything but. Operating under the assumption that everything about your organization’s practices can be discovered at any given time by any person effectively insulates the company from unwelcome surprised, whether it’s the ticked off customer or rogue ex-employee. If there’s no fuel, there can be no fire.

As social and search become inextricably entwined, it’s crucial for brands to evaluate their business practices and ask themselves whether their practices can stand the test of transparency, and the PR team should be the catalyst. It’s good for business, and it’s good for PR.

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