Lying Might Work for Some Managers, But What About Your Customers?

Brian Cantor

Our society maintains that "honesty is the best policy," but when it comes to the actual rewarding of that honesty, our tendency is to dismiss the practice as a fantasy of movies and television.

By not outright rewarding honesty, we are, as a result, often encouraging individuals to be deliberately untruthful. When a mixed martial artist tests positive for steroids, he does not often receive leniency for admitting he took the performance-enhancing-drugs and apologizing. As such, he might as well claim the positive test was the result of "tainted vitamins." Even if the athletic commission does not buy the argument, he at least avoids having to ever publicly confess to taking steroids. And it’s not like he will commonly receive a harsher sentence.

Many workplace cultures, similarly, encourage dishonesty. Even when managers suspect it to be a phony excuse, they seem to expect employees to blame tardiness or absenteeism on a mysterious, transient illness or an unfortunate traffic jam rather than accidental oversleeping (and would likely view an honest confession of the latter with more condemnation). And when they grant PTO days to staff, they feel more comfortable confirming the planned absence is for some major family reunion or sudden trip rather than a mere desire to bum around the house one day.

This passion for willful ignorance helps maintain a desirable faèade within the relevant workplace or community. Instead of outright admitting that people make mistakes and that some personal priorities come between an employee and the workplace, we require a commitment to the notion that only an act of God can keep Man away from his desk.

It is a nice, idealistic sentiment, and insofar as outright allowing employees to admit the non-emergency reasons they missed work could open dangerous cans of worms, it is probably the right approach from an organizational management standpoint.

From a customer management standpoint, the value of the lie decidedly less clear.

Yes, the same tendencies undoubtedly exist when it comes to customer interactions. If a waiter forgets to input a customer order, logic tells that waiter to put forth every excuse under the sun before admitting to the person responsible for his tip that he "screwed up." If the late shift workers at a department store decide to close a few minutes early one night and then have to turn away a late-arriving customer, it feels more pleasant to blame the early closing on some sort of technical or power issue than "we got bored and wanted to go home."

But, as it turns out, the situations are not parallel.

For athletic commissions, a persistent ignorance to the fact that some athletes, quite simply, take steroids is a way to assure that efforts to clean up the sport are paying off—test failures are unfortunate anomalies. For workplaces and managers, a belief that only severe circumstances can produce tardiness and absenteeism fuels a sentiment that showing up to the office and getting the job done is an absolute priority that can only be shaken by unexpected disaster.

In such cases, we do not dwell on the obvious falsehood because we like the comfort created by the lie. The importance of maintaining a pro-company corporate culture will often far outweigh the need to punish a single employee for lying about why he was an hour late.

Lies to customers, however, do not carry such "greater good" or "ends justify the means" benefit. If a customer’s food arrives far later than anticipated, he is no happier to learn that some sort of "chef snafu" with one of the side dishes produced the delay than he would be if he learned that the waiter inputted the order wrong. As a result, if he has suspicions that the latter scenario is actually the case, he has no reason to willfully maintain his ignorance. It is not like his experience is made any better knowing that the kitchen staff, rather than the waiter, is ill-equipped to deliver on its promise to customers.

Without a reason to engage in willful ignorance, his frustration over the negative experience is amplified by the fact that the employee lied to him. He might not be willing to forgive a mistake like forgetting to input an order—and, by all accounts, he has absolutely no reason to do so—but he is certainly not going to do so if the waiter made that sort of mistake and then lied about it. Customers do not always love transparency, but at least they can respect it. Lying is just wrong.

Within the customer management world, an outright, honest admission of guilt also creates an opportunity to do right by the customer. An especially-egregious customer service breach might take dissatisfaction to the point of no return, but in many cases, the combination of transparency from acknowledging the mistake and the compensatory value of the make-good will be enough to cool the negative sentiment.

When an attempt at a make-good is combined with a candid, honest acceptance of blame and apology, it at least sends the message that the brand values its relationship with the customer. That, more often than not, can go a long way in restoring faith.

When customers have their eyes set on the prize of a specific product or specific customer service experience, nebulous, half-hearted double-speak and excuses do not create the "warm culture" or "blissful ignorance" they might do inside the corporate organization. As a result, all customers feel is betrayed by an organization that was not only insensitive enough to mess up a customer’s experience but then dishonest enough to try and cover it up.

If forced to choose between honesty and dishonesty, ask yourself how the lie will benefit those parties involved. In most cases, of one of those parties is a customer, the pros of dishonesty will not outweigh the cons.

Photo credit: Amazon, Universal Pictures