Authenticity is an essential part of an experience. However, authenticity is more complicated than you might think at first.
We are discussing authenticity here because one of our podcast listeners asked us to discuss it. They are struggling with it in their experience and want advice on authenticity.
Now, it seems simple. If you want to be authentic, then…be authentic. In other words, be genuine in your thoughts and actions.
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However, it gets complicated, as many things we discuss here do. For example, consider the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London.
Many might not know this, but the London Business School is near Baker Street, as in 221 B Baker Street, where Sherlock Holmes “lived.” It’s in air quotes because he’s a fictional character. He only lived in the imagination of us all.
Nevertheless, a nearby museum has set up a replica of Holmes’s apartment (because someone lives at 221 B Baker Street…a real person). As part of the team at the London School then, Professor Kent Grayson, MA, PhD. who is interested in the topic of authenticity, would ask museum-goers if the apartment depicted at the museum was authentic.
Now, this question is absurd. It cannot be authentic. Sherlock Holmes isn’t even authentic.
Nevertheless, people answered him in earnest. Sometimes they were authentic in their criticism, calling out anachronistic furniture pieces and other details. It’s silly because it bears repeating, it was all fictional.
So, Was it Authentic?
Now, if it felt authentic, then it was authentic. But since it couldn’t be authentic because the apartment never actually existed, is it really authentic? Then again, if it felt authentic to the attendees, does it matter if it was?
The answer to that last question is, it depends. If we are talking about whether the Sherlock Holmes Museum’s representation of Holmes’ apartment felt authentic, it doesn’t matter if it was or wasn’t. On the other hand, authenticity is paramount when discussing an insurance agent writing a policy to cover your medical care. It should both feel and BE authentic.
So, what about AI? As we know, ChatGPT can write compelling works that are reasonably accurate. However, they don’t always feel authentic. As one of the Top Voices on LinkedIn, I have been collaborating with other Top Voices to help authenticate articles written by AI. We add our two cents by putting our comments after the paragraphs. In a way, the AI article brings it 80 percent of the way, and we take it the last 20 percent.
That said, not everyone appreciates the contribution of AI. Some companies have implemented AI screeners, so they can chuck resumes and cover letters that they think leverage too much AI in their composition. This defensive move means these companies feel these resumes and cover letters feel inauthentic.
Perceptions of authenticity drive many of our reactions to things, but not all things. They matter a lot for certain things, and for others, they’ll matter less.
Many organizations want their experience to be authentic. I could argue all experiences are authentic in that they reflect the organization’s real focus. For example, a bad experience that leaves the customer frustrated could be the genuine manifestation of an operations-minded company that doesn’t put the customer at the center of everything they do.
Therefore, when our listeners ask us how to provide an authentic experience, I realize that isn’t what they are really asking. Instead, they ask us how to be a genuine version of something else.
However, that doesn’t work. It’s inauthentic to be something else by definition.
If you want to provide an authentic experience, you have to start at the beginning. So, the first question you should ask is why you need an authentic experience.
Now, I am no fool. I presume the answer would be something along the lines of “because it will get us more money.” However, that isn’t a problem. That’s a genuine reason for doing something at your organization.
The second question probes, “What do customers value,” presumably with the qualifier, “that we can do to get them to give us more money?” This second question addresses how an organization might need to change to something else rather than pretend to be something else. When you begin providing that value, you are no longer pretending; you are authentically what the customer values and your organization becomes one where they want to spend more money.
Authentic means it feels genuine to the customer, like the Sherlock Holmes Museum’s portrayal of a fictional apartment of a person who didn’t exist. Those facts don’t matter; whether it felt authentic to the attendees did.
However, firms that want an authentic experience do not mean it. They have an authentic experience now. What they are saying is that they want to have a good experience that the customers value. Presenting an experience that genuinely does that is how they will be authentic.
But What About When It’s Inauthentic?
So, what happens when an experience doesn’t feel authentic to people? Simply put, the problem with something being inauthentic is people don’t trust it. When something feels off or out of kilter, then people become wary.
That’s because consistency is the precursor to trust. So, even if an experience is consistently bad, we trust it. But, again, this is because we knew what to expect.
For example, if you routinely have bad experiences with your cable company, you are frustrated but not surprised. You expect that experience since it’s all you have ever had. But if they suddenly started doing things differently, even if the cable company improved, you would likely feel less frustrated in the moment but mistrustful of what’s coming next. At least, you might think terrible was a consistent trait of the cable company. So, what fresh hell is this?
Am I saying the cable company shouldn’t improve? Of course not. Fixing a bad experience is essential to providing an authentic experience that “will get us more money.”
However, it isn’t until you have an experience that is good (or, at the very least, not bad) that you begin to work on things like authenticity. Building authenticity will require a lot of attention to detail within the organization. For example, if you want to greenwash your image to promote your environmental values, ensuring that your company’s business model supports that brand is essential.
In other words, a petroleum company isn’t going to come across as authentic when they claim they protect the planet’s resources. Perceived company motivation matters.
What Do We Take out of This?
In many ways, this discussion of authenticity turns into a conversation about inauthenticity. As a result, much of the topic’s key points turn to the dangers of being inauthentic rather than the plus side of being authentic.
All organizations provide an authentic experience, for good or ill. Do you want to offer an authentic experience for a different version of your organization?
If you want to provide an authentic experience that reflects that different version of the organization, then take the actions to be that version. For example, hire people who are good at providing service or have high levels of emotional intelligence rather than hiring the people who are available. Align the organization in training and measurement to reflect those values, too. Also, concentrate on consistency in communication within your organization. These things will move you toward the authentic experience you want to deliver.
Moreover, recognize that the problems of inauthenticity come from inadequate customer centricity. The customer should be the center of your actions throughout the organization. Then, you can authentically deliver an experience that reflects what customers value. As Sherlock Holmes might have said, it is elementary, my dear Watson.
Colin has spoken at hundreds of conferences, including some of the world’s largest brands. Talk to Colin about how he can speak ‘in person’ or ‘virtually’ at your conference. Click here.