Transparency keeps tech-product flaws from being fatal

"The product never lies."

"The product never lies."

While that truism applies to almost any company selling products or services, it is especially critical in the tech sector, where too often a product's promise is different from the reality of what's actually delivered. As we've seen with dozens of prominent companies of late, a software flaw, bug, or vulnerability reported nearly instantaneously by the press through multiple media channels can tarnish the reputation of a company faster than any rival's badmouthing can.

With consumers' increasing skepticism of the corporate world - especially in light of scandals at companies such as Tyco, WorldCom, and Enron - the credibility of a company is no longer assumed. It must repeatedly be proven to the public.

Since unbiased sources are increasingly scarce, the public relies on third-party, objective sources - such as the media, analyst firms, and research firms -to confirm or deny a company's credibility. This is especially true when it comes to tech companies and products; user/press reviews and analyst and research findings can make or break a product or company's selling value.

A software flaw is something much different than a product mistake in any other industry. Arguably unavoidable, it has become more or less commonplace, as has the patch that a company releases to fix it. While in the past tolerated as something inevitable when dealing with technology, software flaws have recently captured - and held - the spotlight.

Media attention to flaws in individual software programs has transformed into a widespread scrutiny of the entire software industry. Software flaws are being examined and reported like never before - and that's why it's important for companies to treat them much differently than they have in the past.

More specifically, companies should not wait before a third party finds a flaw in a product. They should announce it themselves. This is critical, not only to avoid complaints and business loss when customers stumble on the flaw themselves, but to help preserve the public image of corporate transparency and trust.

A company can follow a few guidelines to ensure the continued integrity of its brand.

First, continue stringently testing the product even after it hits the shelves. As we've seen with many software products, the finalized version typically contains myriad bugs and holes that are uncovered by research firms or reviewers who then send out damaging reports that could destroy the product's sales and credibility. Continued testing by programmers is key to discovering flaws and averting damage.

Second, give your customers information about the flaw and, most important, a solution. Since customers are the main source of revenue for most companies, it is understandable to balk at revealing something that will no doubt alienate even a few. Closed lips and crossed fingers may seem like a better alternative. However, consider that today's consumers - especially tech consumers - are well-informed, well-read, and extremely suspicious.

Announcing a flaw in your product won't make these consumers love you, but it will keep them from adding you to their boycott list - which they no doubt would do if they see a damning product review in their favorite publication. Include an effective solution, and your company will look responsible and consumer-friendly.

Third, speak to the third parties. Reporters, analysts, and other research entities can have a huge impact on the way your product flaw announcement is perceived. Going to them at the earliest possible opportunity and explaining the situation, along with a solution, can turn a potential negative report or article into a positive one.

Having a party other than the company reveal a flaw to the public paints that company as incompetent and casts doubt on the talent behind the product. Admitting product flaws early on and taking corrective measures to fix problems can mitigate bad press that may arise and spare that company the potential embarrassment of having a third party discover and publicize flaws.

Throughout the past year, media coverage of software flaws has appeared with increasing frequency. This has caused some in the industry to ask, "Consumers are protected when they buy defective or flawed goods in almost every product or service category. Why shouldn't buyers of software be protected, too?"

The question of accountability will become increasingly important as companies tally just how much that last virus or security flaw cost them in productivity and data loss. And while vendor disclosure of flaws will not negate responsibility, only through transparent dealings with its public will a tech company be able to build and retain the consumer trust upon which it depends.

  • Eric Armstrong is director of public and analyst relations for Citrix Systems.

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