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TRUST ALERT: Shhh…don't tell;they're actors pretending to be customers

There’s a good reason people don’t trust companies, and I recently witnessed an incident that left me dumbfounded. I was asked to speak at a global company’s annual marketing planning meeting about my views on how marketing is changing, based on my new book. (Which is all about trust, transparency, meaning making and conversational marketing.)

One of the company’s marketing execs told me that some customers would be speaking before me to give the marketing team a sense of what the real customer is all about. Wow, I thought, what a great way to open the conference. Hear the real views of real customers in their own words. Fantastic.

But unknown to most of the marketing staff — these “customers” were actually actors hired by the advertising agency. As I was sitting in the green room with them, the actors let it slip to me what was really going on. (I remarked to one of the actors that she looked familiar, and turns out she’s a recent graduate of the Trinity Rep Theater- Brown University MFA program – and I’m a board member of the organization. So then the cat was out of the bag….)

It was bad enough knowing that actors had been hired to pose as customers, winning the gig based on their performances at a big casting call the ad agency organized. But then two people from the ad agency came in to the green room to “rehearse” the actors, reminding them who they were suppose to be, and what messages they needed to hit on in their little speeches to the marketing group. I especially winced when the ad agency people reminded the actors, “Remember to say you still get a lot of your information from traditional advertising.”

Following the “customer talks,” there was a Q&A, where the marketing people thought they were asking real customers about their views about the product category. I cringed not knowing if the answers were real or rehearsed.

I’m crushed, angry and incredulous.

  • If a company lies to its own employees, what might they be saying to customers?
  • Why was the big Madison Ave. ad agency so nervous about having real customers talk? Why did they have to rehearse these actors? To validate research or a recommendation they had already presented to the client?
  • Why would the head marketer allow this? Because trained actors might be more interesting and articulate than real people? Make the meeting more engaging, perhaps? That would be a pretty lame rationale.
  • Why would you invite me to speak — because I’m all about genuine conversations and honest communications — if you’re setting up your people to have conversations with fake customers. Nothing genuine about that.

I can’t tell you who the company is because I always keep my promise not to reveal confidential information from client engagements. And I promised told the actors I wouldn’t tell. I may have gone too far even writing this cloaked post. But if this gets just one company to think and reverse course before trying to pull a fast one on employees or customers, it will have been worth the risk.

And what a pity that the real voices of real customers are being filtered. Imagine what companies could learn if they actually had meaningful conversations with customers – and not actors.