Are You Lying to Your Customers?


It's important to be honest when dealing with customers, no matter what that honesty entails. You may not always be able to deliver your product on time, but not communicating that truthfully with your customer can be devastating to your business. Dare to tell your customers the truth. They don't like to hear bad news, but they'll appreciate you for giving it to them straight and giving it to them as soon as possible. This article will help motivate you.

First, let's consider your own experiences as a customer. When you're making your daily rounds—say, at the bank, doctor's office, restaurant, airport, or car repair—what's important to you about how you're treated? What about when you're on the phone or online? What distinguishes an experience that pleases you from one that's frustratingly maddening? I've discussed this issue with numerous groups of software professionals, and honesty is always one of the service attributes they cite as important to them.

When I ask class participants for examples of experiences in which honesty was lacking, everyone has a story to tell. They describe the repairman who said he'd be there in the morning, but didn't show up until four in the afternoon—or didn't show up at all. They cite the cell phone website that offers pricing details, but somehow neglects to list all the hidden charges. They mention the car mechanic who claims to have found nonexistent problems, the service rep who said a part was in stock when it wasn't, the doctor who was on schedule but, really wasn't; and the airline with a posted "on-time" departure and you know how that goes.

Invariably, someone mentions being on hold for three-quarters of forever while listening to the relentlessly cheerful message: "Your call is important to us." Yeah, right!

My own gripe du jour is the vendor I contacted by email to report a problem. Within an hour, I received an automated reply acknowledging receipt of my message, and promising me a response within forty-eight hours. That was two months ago, and not a word since then. Liar!

Drawing from these honesty experiences, it's clear that software professionals resent having important information deliberately and willfully withheld or distorted. They strongly prefer a straightforward "I don't know" or "I can't help you" or "We'll be delayed" if that's the truth, rather than phony assurance, a bogus promise, or a fictitious explanation.

I'm Lying, Honest!
Now, to be fair, not every experience of apparent dishonesty reflects a malicious lie. Situations like those described above are sometimes caused by lax policies, service snafus, or innocent misunderstandings, rather than intentional deception. But when you're on the receiving end, it sure feels like dishonesty.

Software professionals describe their dishonesty-encounters with a vehemence that underscores the strongly felt nature of this issue. The discovery that they've been treated dishonestly provokes anger, resentment, distrust, and language like "!@#$%^#&." Certainly the same people who hold honesty dear wouldn't deliberately be dishonest with their own customers. Or would they? What about you? Are you a truth teller or a liar, or does it depend?

When I've asked these same people if they ever withhold important information from their own customers, their immediate reaction is usually "No, of course not." Then they pause and reflect. Upon reflection many of them admit, some sheepishly and some with a head-slapping jolt of awareness, that the answer is yes. It seems that many of the people who abhor dishonesty when they're on the receiving end have a pattern of withholding information from their own customers or creatively fictionalizing it. And often, the information they distort or withhold concerns delays, glitches, changes, problems, or other bad news comparable to what they don't like kept from them when they're the customer.

When deadlines slip or problems arise, they aren't informed in sufficient time to take steps to cope with the situation. The information could have been communicated well before the deadline. These customers are often assured by the project manager that their needs can be addressed in a particular way, when that's not the case at all. Numerous customers have told me, "If they can't do the work, I wish they'd just say so right up front, instead of saying 'yes' now, and then 'no' later." Is it any wonder that customers become angry, resentful and distrustful?Untruths and Consequences
Being the bearer of bad news is no one's favorite responsibility. And it's understandable to want to delay revealing that bad news in hopes that you can quickly recover with no one the wiser. But customers emphasize that they'd rather have bad news now, than worse news later. After all, not having the news till later automatically makes it worse because they have less time to adjust. Customers emphasize that just like the software team, they have work to complete, deadlines to meet and people depending on them. The sooner they know of a delay or a problem, the sooner they can act accordingly to manage its impact on them.

Although most people have customers-driving-me-crazy stories, the fact is that most customers are reasonable people. They know that things don't always proceed as planned, and they'd much prefer to know the situation as it really is, rather than as we might wish them to think it is.

When customers seem demanding or unyielding, this behavior may be the consequence of too often being on the receiving end of blatant dishonesty. Dare to tell your customers the truth. They don't like to hear bad news, but they'll appreciate you for giving it to them straight, and as soon as possible. And that's the honest truth.

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