Several years ago I woke early one June Friday morning to the sound of a ringing phone; it was an associate of mine at the local chapter headquarters. "Rob - get dressed, get your gear, get on the road. We've got a real big one on our hands."
And it was a big one: a twelve-unit condominium fire, with casualties.
Unless you've been there and seen it firsthand, it's hard to believe how fast fire can destroy lives - this one started as a small kitchen fire on the fifth floor and burned straight up, turning a dozen homes to ash in under an hour. One dead (another would die the next morning), ten injured, a lot of people in shock. Our disaster team was already onsite, setting up camp in a church across the street from the building; they were creating a safe zone for the traumatized. As a writer and media liaison with the American Red Cross, it was my responsibility that morning to help keep the media managed - to both deliver the facts to reporters and prevent them from violating the privacy of our clients in the name of journalism.
My time spent working as a public affairs liaison on disaster scenes taught me everything I will ever need to know about the importance of client confidentiality. Our clients, often suddenly and tragically stripped of every security they had taken for granted, were experiencing some of the most fragile, vulnerable moments of their lives; many would be unwilling to accept our services if the details of that service relationship were made generally known.
Only through an ironclad and extremely strict commitment to confidentiality could we provide the help they needed. In fact, only through an absolute respect for privacy could we make any difference at all.
It was valuable training for the work I do today as a freelance copywriter for technical and industrial businesses. Often my clients come to me to do work vital to the wellbeing of their business interests, ranging from investor materials to promotional items to website copy. I handle valuable proprietary materials on a regular basis, and I'm often trusted with the secrets of my clients' businesses; only through a policy of absolute confidentiality can I carry that trust effectively.
So how strict is your confidentiality policy?
Do you include a confidentiality clause in your contracts? It's one thing to appreciate the value of confidentiality; it's another altogether to legally bind yourself to that ideal. Are you willing to restrict your legal options for the sake of protecting the privacy of your clients? If not, why not?
Does your confidentiality policy include divulging the nature of your client relationships, or does it only cover the release of proprietary materials? It's natural for an independent professional to want to advertise an important client to the world, because brand names can bolster credibility. However, many clients will require your services in connection to business interests which will be jeopardized if any aspect of the work is revealed to outside parties; for those clients, it's not enough for you to simply protect their trade secrets and proprietary materials - if they can't trust your silence, they won't work with you. How much of a reassurance can you give them?
Is your confidentiality policy consistent? Negotiating separate confidentiality arrangements with each client can become quite complicated; it's often much simpler to treat all your clients equally with high standards. Do you have a single consistent policy, or are you sending mixed messages regarding your commitment to the privacy of your clients?
Are you openly making your confidentiality policy clear? Once you've made a firm commitment to the needs of your clients, you should regard it as a point of honor to make that policy known. It is far easier to break a pledge if you never give it in the first place, and clients know that; if you want to do business with the most discriminating, you must make the promise they need to rely upon. How clearly do you communicate that policy?
Are you walking the talk? In my experience, temptation isn't the greatest threat to confidentiality. Apathy is. Too many people see contracts as paperwork designed to keep lawyers employed; they just don't care about their agreements, above and beyond the exchange of goods. When you don't maintain vigilance, it's easy to say the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people - and cause great damage to innocent people through an act of negligence.
A quality service provider is first and foremost a client advocate: advising, serving, protecting.
Take a good look at your professional services business today - if you're not taking confidentiality as seriously as any doctor or attorney would, you are damaging your own credibility with every word you speak and every contract you sign. You're also not serving your clients as well as you should.
Privacy makes everything else possible. If you're not safeguarding the privacy of your clients, you're providing them no service at all.