Telling it like it is
Is it ever OK to lie to a client? It’s a question I’d never really thought about until recently, when I reposted a blog post offering advice on how to make sure your quotes are accepted by clients. I liked the freshness and boldness of David Miralles’ post, although I didn’t necessarily go along with everything he suggested. But when I reposted it, a colleague whom I like and respect was horrified at one of the ideas. The problem was David’s suggestion that one good strategy was to appear to be busy, even if you weren’t. He claimed this perceived scarcity value would make you seem more attractive to potential clients. My colleague found this unacceptable. “Lying to your clients about your availability? Seriously?” she asked me.
I started to think. Do I always tell clients the truth? And I realised that of course I don’t. That’s not to say I would go as far as David Miralles suggests. To be honest (yes, really honest) I don’t really need to, and if I tell someone I’m busy it’s usually because I am. But I’m not above the odd “white lie” if it’s for self-preservation. What do I say, for example, if a client phones me late on a Friday afternoon at the end of a hard week with a job that needs doing for Monday morning? Do I tell her: “Look I really don’t feel like doing this, I’m looking forward to a weekend with my wife and son even though we’re not actually doing that much”? Or do I say: “Sorry, I can’t, I’m going away this weekend”? Or even: “Sorry, I’m already working on something this weekend”. Well? If you were my client which would you prefer to hear?
Or what about that horrible situation when you’re waiting for confirmation of two separate jobs, but if you take one you won’t have time to do the other? Suddenly you receive both confirmations within minutes of one another. You prefer one job, but you don’t want to offend the other client. Do you say you’re not taking their job because you preferred the the first one? Or do you explain that you’re terribly sorry but their confirmation’s come too late because you’ve just accepted another job?
Or how about this one? You’ve more or less decided to drop a client because they always pay late. In fact they owe you money at the moment. They phone up and offer you a translation job. Do you take it even though you really want to end the relationship? Do you refuse it and tell them the truth, with the risk that you might not collect the money they owe you if they know you’re no longer working with them? Or do you say “I’m terribly sorry, I’m really busy at the moment”, even if you aren’t? I know what I would do (and have done), although I have no difficulty with the “This just isn’t working…” conversation once all my hard-earned cash has been safely received.
The point is, I think, that if I don’t always tell a client the truth it’s not for the thrill of lying, or to gain myself some sort of advantage in the way David describes. It’s simply to oil the wheels of a professional relationship at a difficult point; to tell clients things the pleasant way they’d like to hear them, rather than sometimes the ugly way they really are. And in this context I, personally, don’t think it’s a problem or even unethical, it’s just a question of saying no (it’s usually no) nicely (see a previous post on his subject).
I wouldn’t even treat all clients the same. I know the ones who will understand when I say I can’t deliver a job until the afternoon because I’m going for a much-needed swim in the morning (my only real form of exercise) and those who require explanations along the lines of “I’m sorry, I can’t do it this morning because I’m rushed off my feet” to prevent tutting or wheedling. It’s always the annoying, demanding, controlling ones, the kind that these days I agree to work for less and less anyway, who are less likely to be told the truth.
But even these clients deserve some kind of professional respect. So when should you never lie to a customer? I came up with this list:
1. Never lie about your experience or ability to do a job. It will come back to haunt you.
2. Never lie about your qualifications or association memberships. As well as it being unethical, these things can be checked.
3. Never lie about problems with a deadline. If you’re in trouble you must give the true reasons.
4. Never lie about mistakes. If it’s your fault, admit it and take the consequences.
5. Never lie when recommending colleagues to clients or clients to colleagues. This, too, can get you into a lot of trouble.
And finally, although this isn’t so much lying as unethical behaviour, never, ever, ever accept a job and then back out of it. If you say you’ll do it, you do it, no matter how tempting an alternative offer you might receive. Trying to renegotiate a deadline is OK, but if it’s impossible then a commitment is a commitment. That’s unless, of course, the real job turns out not to be the one that was explained to you. In that case, the client has lied to you, and you are free to do as you please.
What do you think about the issue of lying to clients? Do you do it? Could you do it? Or are you horrified at the thought? Please leave your comments below.
My attitude is pretty much the same as yours, although maybe marginally more on the ‘be honest’ side.
I don’t like lying. In fact, a good friend who knows me very well recently commented that if she had to sum me up in one word, it’d be ‘honest’ (to a fault). I just find it easier to keep track of truth than lies, because lies will always get found out eventually, and you’re constantly risking more than whatever it is you seek to gain in that one moment.
Do I offer white lies sometimes to spare feelings? Sometimes, yes. I don’t think I ever have much reason to lie to clients, thankfully, as both sides are usually flexible enough that we can come to an agreement. But yes, I have in the past said I am just ‘busy’ to an agency when I realised a Friday afternoon at five is not a good time to tell them I don’t really want to work for them for that rate again. I’m more honest these days, probably because my clients (all direct clients aside from a niche agency client I work with once every few months) are more flexible and honest about what they really need.
I understand your colleague’s feelings, but from a marketing perspective, I think scarcity is an important thing to consider. That said, like all lies, it’s pretty transparent a lot of the time. My attitude there is probably more like yours – I’ll say I’m busy, and it’s usually true.
Nice post. Can’t really add much. 🙂
Thanks, Rose. I don’t like lying either, it’s just that when I started to think about the issue I realised I wasn’t quite a straightforwardly honest as I’d thought. If I do feel I need to do it, though, my first thought is always, "Could I be found out?" and I only go ahead if the answer is "no".