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Court your fiercest critics

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It’s hard enough staying close to customers, but who would want to cozy up to their enemies?

ChoicePoint sure didn’t. The gigantic data broker vigorously fended off attacks from consumer and privacy groups nicknamed the “privacy posse.” The company assured them that it protected people’s sensitive personal data.

“Trust us,” it said.

But its critics did not trust ChoicePoint. A consumer Web site voted ChoicePoint the second-worst company in America, and a watchdog group gave it a “Lifetime Menace Award.”

Why? Because in February 2005, ChoicePoint was forced to admit that more than 40 fake companies had gained around-the-clock access to 163,000 consumer records. While ChoicePoint had guarded its back door against hackers, thieves masked as bill collectors, insurance companies and such used some pretty basic ploys to waltz in the front door and grab data.

Uncle Sam smacked ChoicePoint with a $10 million fine and made it put $5 million in escrow for any consumers it harmed.

That’s when company president Douglas Curling started courting his fiercest critics.

“It was sort of like when I talk with my wife when she’s not happy with me,” he says. “It’s not exactly a dialogue I look forward to, but I can’t deny [that] it’s important.”

After reviewing the changes ChoicePoint has made, even its most persistent critics are giving the company credit for mending security breaches and instituting what is now the industry’s standard protocol for making amends to consumers.

And even ChoicePoint’s top marketer admits that he learned something from his enemies.

“The reality is, we were never as evil as people thought we were,” says James Lee, “but we were never as good as we thought we were.”

Lesson: Take out those earplugs and listen to your critics before you’re forced to confront your flaws.

—Adapted from “Keeping Your Enemies Close,” Gary Rivlin, The New York Times.

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