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Transparency in Subscriptions: A Lesson in Honesty from The Honest Company

By: David Woolenberg
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Transparency is not just important, it’s essential for brands that offer a subscriptions service. For proof, look no further than recent news about The Honest Company. The Honest Company, co-founded by actress Jessica Alba, first made waves with its non-toxic household products and advocacy for ethical consumerism. But lately, the company’s handling of subscriptions has threatened to tarnish its brand. Retailers everywhere can learn a vital lesson from The Honest Company’s mistake: when it comes to subscriptions, transparency matters.

Technology blog Gizmodo recently published a report after it obtained more than 120 consumer complaints about The Honest Company filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The complaints include a range of problems. But concerns about The Honest Company’s subscription diaper service topped the list. That service might seem very attractive to any responsible new parent: it offers customers bundled discounts on “eco-friendly” diapers, free shipping, and — crucially — the ability to “cancel anytime.” But canceling, as it turns out, is much harder than advertised. Per Gizmodo:

Even for those consumers who knew they were signing up for a subscription service, it sounds like canceling was incredibly hard. According to the complaints, there’s no way to cancel online, and even if they got through to someone on the phone (which many people found difficult in itself) they were given strange excuses by the company for why they couldn’t cancel yet.

Imagine being a sleep-deprived new mom or dad just trying to cancel a subscription — the last thing you’d want to do is wait on hold, sometimes for hours, and then argue with someone about why you needed to cancel. Honest issued the following statement in response to Gizmodo’s reporting:

By requesting that our customers call us directly, it allows us to have an open and honest conversation regarding the subscription process and product offerings. With thousands of direct customer touch points a day, our customers help inform a variety of our decisions from product development to website flow to retail locations and product assortment.

Any sympathetic retailer might understand why Honest would want to take this approach — here’s a company that really stands behinds the quality of its subscription products, and it wants to have one last opportunity to make a person-to-person case for their value. But the problem is all too evident. Retailers don’t earn the trust of their customers by holding their subscriptions hostage. And subscription-based commerce takes trust above all.

Whether it’s diapers, printer ink, video games or running shoes, subscription services absolutely must be easy to cancel. If a retailer wants customers to subscribe, it’s got to provide rock-solid assurance that they’re not signing up to be billed forever. Transparency is the backbone of any successful subscription-based model. This includes ensuring your customers fully understand what they are signing up for, sending clear communications about their subscriptions during the renewal cycle, and providing them an easy way to change or cancel their subscription. If customers feel the faintest suspicion that they’re being trapped, tricked or duped into using your service, they’ll click away and find another retailer with more integrity.

Today, when merchants are offering a subscription, they aren’t just selling a product, they’re selling an experience — and a relationship. The best relationships start with honesty.

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