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Think Before You Act

Think Before You Act

March 23, 2009
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" Ready, fire, aim...? "

My father was a man with an aphorism for all situations. His aphorisms often carried a Socratic undertone, as much question as statement. One (of many I still recall) would be rolled out while I, in my youthful haste, dove into a project full-bore ahead. He'd quietly stand back and watch, until I'd hurried myself right into a dead end. As my frustration would build, I could hear him chuckling under his breath — and I knew what was coming next:

"Ready, fire, aim...?"

He was right; Rushing into something without taking the time to think out the whole structural framework is a recipe for disaster. My father was a planner, an organized, meticulous, and forward-thinking man. While I'm not always obsessed with having the detailed, nested, dependency-analyzed models that he preferred, my own tweak of his wisdom, I feel honors the deeper lesson; determine what the goal is, first: Ready, AIM, fire.

The goal: it's a deceptively simple thing to imagine, isn't it? It's where we want to go. I was reminded, once again, of that fundamental wisdom last fall when our company was creating a new, branded website. The next page that needed to be done was the "terms of service/privacy policy." You know the sort of page, right? — All manner of boilerplate, a bunch of legalese, many paragraphs of small-font nonsense that literally nobody reads. In fact, a friend with a sardonic sense of humor once inserted a sentence into the middle of just such boilerplate: "... and, whereas the previously categorized — the first person to notice this interruption and contact our company will receive five hundred dollars in cash — limitation on the exclusion of liability..." Nope, nobody ever got those five hundred bucks.

But, what about the terms of service language? Do we use one from our earlier website, with updates? See what similar companies use, out on the web today? Maybe just grab Google's — they're smart, right?

Stop! Please, just STOP.

What is the goal?

Well, of course, the goal of the terms of service is to, err, protect us from, umm, lawsuits and stuff. And yes, we all know that lawsuits are an ever-present fact of life in the lands of English common law — unfortunately we also all know (or should know) that random, often irrelevant 'terms of service' boilerplate is no magical shield against lawsuits. In fact, most judges are going to look at all those pages of turgid nonsense and quickly conclude that there's no reasonable expectation that a real human being would actually read it and consider it binding. Out the window goes the boilerplate, and we're right back to the judge's sense of what's fair, and what everyone really intended before the legalese got shoved into the mix.

No, protection from lawsuits isn't the real goal of your terms of service — or your privacy policy. The goal of both, particularly in the adult industry, is quite simple really: demonstrate to your customers that your company is honest, clear, and fair about the "terms of the bargain" that you are proposing with each and every customer who decides to spend their hard-earned money with you (by the way, is any money not "hard-earned," and does it really matter? I always wondered…). The goal of this language is to present your offer to your prospective customer: if he or she concludes it's a fair trade, you've got a sale. That's called "business," and it is what really pays the bills — not government handouts (err, "economic stimulus packages") or tax rebates or investors. Revenue — and margin — are what makes a business and fills the bank accounts: Nothing else.

With that in mind, how can we re-frame the standard, boilerplate terms of service? Following Nietzsche, we remind ourselves that less is more. What do we want to commit to, as a company? Well, we probably want to say that we'll do our best to provide the product or service that our customers pay us for — but if for some reason we can't, we'll issue a refund. We can't promise to do more than that; if their whole sense of self-identity comes crashing down because our server is slow one evening, we can't pay for a lifetime's trips to a shrink. That's not reasonable.

What else? Since we're in the adult industry, we probably want to tell our customers that we won't be sloppy about leaving their personal information where it is visible to passers-by, right? That's the "privacy policy" part, and it need not be pages long either. How about this: "we'll do everything we can, in our daily operations, to ensure that your personal information isn't compromised when you become a customer with us. We use reliable, full-disk encryption on our database servers, and if we must transmit your information to other machines, we'll only send it fully encrypted. If, despite our hard work, your information may have been compromised, we'll contact you immediately so that you are aware of the leak."

Not so hard to do is it, once you know what your goal is? We spent a few minutes, as a team, writing our language for our new website and, when it was summarized in nice, simple, direct English sentences the gang forwarded it to me so I could 'legalese' it (one of the drawbacks of having too many education-related initials behind one's name is this sort of assumption). So, naturally, I posted it to our website as-is. You can see it there today: www.cryptocloud.net.

Thomas Watson, the force behind IBM's rise to the pinnacle of global technology companies, famously had a plaque that sat on his desk, facing every visitor who came to see him. One word: THINK! From that one imperative springs so much innovation, awareness, creativity, detail-attention, and empathetic care. Don't just go on autopilot, allowing "how everyone else does it" to be your only rationale for choices your company makes. Determine the goal — look at the world through your customers' eyes — and mould your decisions around their needs, not yours. As Cactus Ed Abbey so piquantly observed:

"The chief difference between humankind and the other animals is the ability to observe, think, reason, experiment, to communicate with one another through language; the mind is our proudest distinction, the finest achievement of our human evolution. I think we may safely assume that we are meant to use it."

Every interaction with your customers — or prospective customers — provides you with the possibility to resonate with integrity and competence. Never miss those opportunities, no matter how big or small, for they are the building blocks of success. Oh, and don't tell the lawyers I tossed out the boilerplate — I'll never hear the end of it!

D. Spink is Chief Technology Officer of Baneki Privacy Computing.


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