Integrity, every day and in the face of disaster

   I had planned to pen some of my experiences and lessons in overseas business travel for this month’s article. But Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath brings other issues to the forefront for me — one of them being integrity.
   Business and business people oftentimes get a bad rap. It seems like there is always a story in the news about corporate corruption, shoddy products, or indifferent service.
   The stories suggest that all business people care about, especially those in charge of corporations, is the bottom line. I won’t deny that it does happen. We all know of shady business practices and greedy people.
   In our experience, for example, the water business can bring to mind slick salesmen pitching snake oil and “black box” technologies that have the famous “wave” warranty — they work until the salesman waves goodbye with your check in his hand. Unfortunately, many of these stories are true.
   For a company trying to promote water treatment technologies that are not part of the mainstream, these stories present formidable obstacles to sales and growth. It is not uncommon for us to talk to residential customers who are three-time losers — again and again they have put big bucks into systems that don’t meet expectations.
   Not only do we have to convince people that our technology works on its own merits, but we also have to overcome the negative experiences they’ve had with other companies.
   To do this, integrity has to be central to everything we do.
   What is integrity? I think of the word “integral,” meaning a whole, a totality. Integrity doesn’t mean telling the truth or being honest. It means not being duplicitous. In practical terms it means to me that I should be able to tell my wife the same things about my business and my products that I tell my customers, regulators, development agencies, and employees.
   There are some obvious advantages to an integral approach to business. You don’t have to have separate “stories” for different people. Your pitch can be simple and to the point.
   But beyond that, for me, it is the only way we can do business.
We can’t afford to make claims we can’t back up or that will prove to be untrue later on. What we say about our products and services and what they do must be one and the same. They must be integral.
   Oftentimes, shady business practices are simply the result of improperly trained employees. If integrity is not central to a company’s philosophy, a salesperson may be sorely tempted to make up an answer to a question he or she doesn’t actually know the answer to.
   The integrated approach would be simple — train salespeople so they don’t just answer questions, but provide the correct answers. And if they don’t know the answer, provide the mechanism for them to refer to someone who does know, or simply to say “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you.”
Another cause is lack of experience and testing. I have to ask myself about every system we provide —“Would I drink this water? Would I let my wife, kids, and grandchildren drink this water?” If I can’t honestly say “yes,” then I return back to design and testing, or drop the project.
   When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, it presented a number of business challenges to us. The first was how to get products assembled quickly and efficiently.
After that were logistics of transportation. The integrity issues involved pricing, quality control, documentation, and training. People’s lives depend on our filters. The filters remove pathogenic organisms such as cholera and typhoid. For us to have a viable business and to be able to live with ourselves, we have to make every possible effort to make sure that our products are integral, whole, complete, and not duplicitous.    The price must be right, the products have to do exactly what we say, and we have to provide the back-up to make sure they do.
   As many or even most business people know, this is not bad business, this is sustainable business.
   As the Katrina disaster continues to unfold over the coming weeks and months, businesses all over the United States will be striving to come to grips with a massive infrastructure failure and its public-health problems.
   The integral approach for us will be to develop and market systems and products that don’t need power, can produce their own chlorine, can take out pathogens, can be stockpiled for disasters, and can be affordable.
   And hopefully, the public will become aware of all the businesses and people, and even corporations, who do bring integrity to their work every day.

Humphrey Blackburn is the president of Blue Future Filters Inc. in Bellingham.

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