Should you always be honest with your customers?

December 20, 2019

It should come as no surprise that companies are constantly lying to us.

In 2000, Energy Brands, a company later acquired by The Coca-Cola Company, released vitaminwater, a beverage that’s marketed as an “electrolyte enhanced water,” presented as a healthy alternative to sodas. The packaging is colorful and the copy playful — could healthy be finally fun?

It may have been fun, but it sure wasn’t healthy. A careful examination of the ingredients would quickly let you in on its dirty hefty secret — a bottle of vitaminwater contains the same amount of fructose as a bottle of regular Coke, packing 120 calories and 32 grams of sugar — and in 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the Coca Cola Company for marketing the drink as healthy, which they claimed was in violation of the guidelines provided by the Food and Drug Administration.

Coca-Cola’s lawyers dismissed the suit, and further argued that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage,” essentially saying that not only can ads be deceitful, but that we’re fools for believing the lies.

Why we lie

There are a lot of reasons why companies lie to their customers, and most times, they may not even be trying to be openly deceitful. They could be omitting some fine print in the contracts, hoping to boost sales. Or masking some of the brand’s shortcomings. Some may even be trying to protect customers, or to make them feel more comfortable — recently, Ford Motor Company engineers have admitted that the gas gauge is intentionally calibrated to be inaccurate, reading full when it’s not really full and empty when there’s still a few miles left of gas in the car, so the customer can find a gas station before it’s too late.

But according to Robert Feldman, a psychologist and professor in Behavioral Sciences at University of Massachusetts, the main reason we lie is to impress others, to protect our self-worth. “It’s tied in with self-esteem,” says Feldman. “We find that as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels.”

And companies aren’t immune to it. We’ve seen examples of this in the past years — as artificial intelligence and automation started getting heaps of Venture Capital funding and media attention in the past few years, startups have been drawn to these arenas like moths to a flame, and we’ve seen the rise of chatbots, virtual concierges, shopping assistants, and other AI-powered automatons. But not everyone could get their bots to run, and so companies enlisted humans to do what bots couldn’t — reviewing and editing their messages, ordering pizza and Chipotle — while still pretending their service was fully automated.

Ultimately, the customer needs to trust us to the point where they are saying, “I am giving you my business, and I expect you to come to me and tell me the good, the bad, the ugly.”

Killing lies

But as we learned with each childhood scolding, bending the truth is problematic. First of all, truth has a way of coming out, which is not only embarrassing, but can actually damage your and possibly your company’s reputation. It can cause you to lose a disenchanted customer —and plenty others, should that customer share the story with a few friends or hundreds of followers on social media. You can even lose your job.

But even if none of this happens, it will still cause you to lose the best asset you have — trust. And it can do so instantly.

Good personal relationships are built on trust. I’ve gotten so close with customers that I knew whether they were getting married, or getting divorced, or that hilarious thing their kids said during dinner. It takes months or even years to get here, to build this kind of relationship with your customers, and it only takes a tiny slip up to lose it. Ultimately, the customer needs to trust us to the point where they are saying, “I am giving you my business, and I expect you to come to me and tell me the good, the bad, the ugly.” So there needs to exist a relationship of trust.

The moment of truth

But customer support agents need to have their company’s bests interests in mind as well. There should be a healthy balance between your compromise to the customer, and to the company. So what I tell my team is to say the truth, but to have a backup plan as well. If you’re going to the customer to explain what happens, you better also explain how you’re going to fix it. How you’ve escalated the problem, the people you’ve involved in the process — explaining step by step what’s the plan for solving the problem. And that makes a big difference, because the customer is more likely to be focused on the corrective actions you’re taking and less on the screw-up, and praise you for your honesty and proactiveness.

As an industry, we tend to focus on ARR, deals closed, or other growth metrics, but at the end of the day, what’s best for the company is to keep their customers happy. In my first year working as an account manager for a large BPO, I was told, “If we don’t have customers, we don’t have a business.” And in all my years working in the business, I never once regretted telling our customers the truth, no matter how unpleasant the situation was — it always built the relationship further.

The more we strive to be honest, both with our customers and the people around us, the better off we’re going to be. No matter how innocuous a lie may seem, when it comes to business, there’s a reason why it is a cliché — honesty really is the best policy.

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