In my previous blog post, I talked about how Evergreen Clauses should be avoided in your contracts. In this article, I talk about another thing to avoid in your contracts: inconsistency. Interesting, though, is that consistency is a critical business attribute that is required in more than just contracts.

I had an interesting experience with the New Mexico Business Weekly earlier this week. I wanted to attend their “Breakfast with the Business Weekly” networking event. Problem was, you needed to be a subscriber, and I wasn’t. No problem, though, because this event had special pricing for non-subscribers: You get to become a subscriber. An annual subscription, no less.

Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it?

Inconsistency introduces FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

So, I proceeded to go through the online process of registering for the networking event, which would also make me a subscriber. Right away, I encountered some trouble: The first screen in the registration process said by registering, I would receive “a complimentary 4-week subscription.” That doesn’t sound right, I was expecting an annual subscription. I bounced back to the overview of the networking event. Sure enough, I’m supposed to get an annual subscription.

I decide their registration process was a little confusing, but would proceed nonetheless. The next screen is labeled “subscription information” and contains two input boxes: My choices for login id and password. I thought this strange, because they need my physical address to send the newspaper (at this point, I didn’t know they had a digital-only subscription; and because I’m thinking of advertising in this newspaper, I wanted the print version anyway).

So, I decide to investigate a bit more instead of just going through with my purchase. It’s time I figure out just what I’m getting for an annual subscription. I therefore open a new browser window and go to their website to subscribe manually. I learn that there are two forms of subscriptions: print and digital for $84/year, and digital only for $59/year. The networking event cost $15 for subscribers, and $85 for non-subscribers. Did you come to the same conclusion I did??!? That the “annual subscription” they were offering for the networking event was only the digital subscription? I bounced back to the overview of the networking event for what seemed like the 10th time: It just said “annual subscription,” without any indication of whether the subscription was “digital” or “print and digital.”

Inconsistencies in the buying process are like a tax: They drain the effectiveness of your sales efforts.

At this point, I’m confused. I don’t know what to do. And, frankly, I’m slightly annoyed. All I wanted to do, was register for this networking event, and obtain an annual subscription if it was the print version. I’m forced to call them, and ask them to clarify. This turns into a 30 minute process or more, and from a practical standpoint, this served as a significant barrier to my doing business with them. If I wasn’t so intent on going to the networking session, I would have given up long ago. How many people do you think may have gotten equally as frustrated, and decided the heck with it?

What may seem obvious to you, is anything but to others

In my example above of what was supposed to be a simple registration process for a networking event at the New Mexico Business Weekly, turned into a small fiasco. 3 minutes turned into 30. A warm, engaging experience destroyed, and frustration left in its wake. All because of the lack of consistency:

  • Inconsistent language about the length of the subscription being purchased (i.e. networking event info saying one year versus first page of the shopping cart saying 4-week free trial).
  • Inconsistent expectations management (i.e. 4-week trial was a promo, for purchasing an annual subscription), so the language needed to be reworded to set my expectations properly (I.e. “4 additional weeks added to all new annual subscriptions”).
  • Structural inconsistency, in that I was expecting to input my address and I was just being asked to input my desired login id and password.
  • Finally, inconsistent reference to their own products (i.e. “annual subscription” versus “annual digital subscription” or “annual print and digital subscription”).

The best gift you can give the attorney suing you, is an inconsistency in what you say or how you conduct business.In business, as in law, consistency is often overlooked but always a huge factor in absolutely everything. The lack of consistency is chaos. It creates fear, uncertainty and doubt. All attributes that seriously decrease customer satisfaction in business, and create loopholes in law.

The Norse so despised chaos, that they named a god after it: Loki, the god of mischief and chaos.

One of the surest ways to create chaos, is to be inconsistent.

How many times have you been confused when dealing with someone or some business, because they are being inconsistent in some way, and you get some quick explanation that makes you feel like you’ve made a mistake or feel stupid for not knowing “how they do things?”

This is the double-insult: Someone or some organization is inconsistent in someway, causing unintentional confusion or ambiguity. You ask a question or two, and the response makes you feel even worse? Is that how you want your customers to feel?

In law, inconsistency can be a real problem. If you have inconsistent terms in a contract, which one should be controlling? If you use different words to describe the same thing (i.e. “customer,” “client” and “purchaser”), the reader may think you’re meaning to distinguish them in some way. If you treat people or employees inconsistently, you could potentially get sued. This is one of the things attorneys really love to sniff out. If an attorney is working against you (i.e. for someone trying to sue you), best gift you can give the opposite side is inconsistency, as they will then use that inconsistency against you.

How to avoid inconsistency

It is especially important to tackle inconsistency in your communications and business processes, in the following scenarios:

  • Any and all communications to customers (i.e. ads, signs, notices, promotions, website, instructions, corporate identity and branding, etc)
  • Any and all work-flows (i.e. online purchasing, shopping cart, inquiries for more information, sales, complaints, returns and refunds, promotion handling, hiring, employee reviews, etc)
  • Any and all contracts and agreements (i.e. sales, employment, terms-of-service, vendor, independent contractor, employee handbook, etc)

It’s surprisingly easy to be inconsistent, and there are different types of inconsistency, with varying levels of seriousness:

  • Facial inconsistency – Perhaps the least damaging of the types of inconsistencies, this can nonetheless be embarrassing and create confusion. This is where something, on its face, is inconsistent. Using different words for the same thing, would be considered facial inconsistent. Or, being inconsistent in about your brand or business. While facial inconsistency may not result in an immediate lawsuit, like applied inconsistency below, it can make one look incompetent, careless or uncaring.
  • Factual inconsistency – More serious than facial inconsistency, this is where the facts about a certain thing are being referenced inconsistently, creating an obvious ambiguity. The price being listed differently for the same thing would be an example. As another example, have you received a meeting request for a particular date, but the actual day referenced was wrong? (i.e. “Let’s meet this Thursday, March 25th, 2011”, but the problem is that March 25th is a Friday, not a Thursday).
  • Structural inconsistency – Structural inconsistency consists of setting up a fact pattern, sequence of steps or procedure that doesn’t support the conclusion, objective, or is impossible. As a simple example, have you ever seen a sign pointing to bathrooms that weren’t there? A sign that reads “Pull” when you should “Push?” In more complex communications (i.e. contracts), this could result where one part of the communication goes into detail about a particular procedure (i.e. how to obtain refunds), yet the other part of the communication doesn’t support that particular procedure (i.e. the contract that includes how to obtain refunds doesn’t permit refunds).
  • Applied inconsistency – This is the most serious, damaging and risky for businesses. This is where an individual or business is being inconsistent in what it does. For example, treating employees inconsistently in how promotions are handled. Such inconsistent behavior could result in a fast and expensive lawsuit. Or, giving refunds to some customers but not all customers (i.e. you’d be fooling yourself if you think customers don’t talk to each other).

Feel like your efforts should be more effective, and you can’t figure out why? Check for inconsistencies.Ensuring consistency is key to your success, and to do this, you must spend more time on those things that seem less important in the firefighting rush of the busy day: You need to follow these tips:

  • Consistently use one word for each of your nouns. In the case of New Mexico Business Weekly above, they should always refer to their subscriptions individually (i.e. “annual digital subscription” instead of “annual subscription”). As an easy example, don’t use “clients,” “customers,” and “patrons” interchangeably. Pick one and stay with it. How do you reference your particular goods and services? Be consistent there. Same for your brand. If your company is “Deep Web Technologies,” don’t refer to yourself as “Deep Web,” “Deep Web Tech,” and “DWT.”
  • Always require someone else to review communications, someone other than the original author or drafter, to check for factual errors and ambiguities.
  • Get third-parties, ideally customers, to conduct “a walk-through” of your work-flows. Don’t help or instruct them. Just watch. See where they make mistakes. Fix and augment the trouble spots. If you haven’t done this in your buying processes, DO THIS TOMORROW, and you will be surprised at what you learn!
  • Train, train and retrain your employees, and hold them accountable. Never change a key process without training, and hopefully, don’t institute a key process or work-flow change, without having had a third-party validate it with a walk-through.
  • Finally, in the case of your contracts and agreements, don’t do it yourself. Hire an attorney. Utilizing or downloading legal forms online are fine, but they were written by people who don’t know your business, and they will automatically introduce inconsistencies without the help of a professional.

Law 4 Small Business. A little law now can save a lot later.

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