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Is it ever ok to lie to a client?

“Is it ever ok to lie to a client?” I asked this of close to a thousand professional services executives on a recent ‘How To Delight Clients” road show, and was surprised by the overwhelmingly consistent response. Will it surprise you? Read on…

A colleague who just read this introduction is perplexed: “Why even raise the issue of ever needing to be untruthful to a client? You’ve built a reputation based on integrity, and on honest, transparent dealings.”

Thank you. However, in training executives with aspirations for successful long-term consulting careers, it’s a question best discussed and answered early, openly and fully. That’s why we asked it on the road show. And that’s why I thought it worthwhile raising on Wrestling Possums. Getting it wrong can spell disaster, so learn the lesson early- and share it, often. Former GE chief executive Jack Welsh says: “Face reality.” Just because we don’t like something does not mean it is not real. Consultants will be tempted to tell lies. Should they?

Here’s the overwhelmingly consistent response from the almost 1000 people I’ve asked:

NO- you must never lie to a client. Trust and credibility underpins relationships. Lies get found out. Trust evaporates. Clients never forgive or forget a lie.

BUT- you can on occasion, as in life generally, be a little creative in managing expectations and perceptions. Here’s an example (and I challenge any one in business who says they have never ‘managed perceptions’ before, and are unlikely to do so again).

RING RING

“Hello, Agency Exec here.”

“Hi. Client Exec here. How are you going with the ideas for the launch campaign you’re presenting to my CEO on Friday?”

“Um…oh yes… (clears throat)…we’re basically on track thank you Client Exec. (Starts sounding excited)…We’re right in the groove. We will certainly be ready for action on Friday! You are going to be thrilled. It’s going to be a GREAT meeting! …”

“Phew- that’s good Agency Exec. This is a really important meeting and it has to go well. I’m relying on you to nail this.”

“Don’t worry Client Exec, we won’t let you down.”

PING (Hangs up)

Agency Exec turns to his colleagues: “Crikey- we’ve only got three days before that CEO product launch campaign presentation. We’re not there yet with the ideas. We need to get cracking- fast! Order pizza. It’s brainstorm time!”

Here’s the alternative:   “Actually Client Exec – we’re in really bad shape today. We’re just so busy on another client project with a tighter deadline right now and have not focused on your brief yet. Don’t worry though, we should be ok on the day, maybe, I think…well, I hope.”

Maybe I am naïve, but I reckon that response would not be helpful, would cause huge distress to the client, and would create massive upheaval in your team- pretty damn fast! And all for no reason. Managing perceptions keeps stress under control for all. It makes sense to keep everyone calm in a hectic, high pressure world. But make sure you deliver! Never, ever LET the client down. And never tell a lie. There’s a difference, and you know it.

I lied to Client David once.

I told him I was unwell and could not attend a meeting, and would send instead a highly able colleague. I was not sick, but had decided to attend a lunch celebrating another client’s promotion. Later that day I was in a noisy pub. My phone rang. It was Client David.  “David,” I yelled. “Hang on. I can’t hear you. …” I walked outside. “Sorry David-it’s very noisy in this bar. What’s up? …What’s that? You what? “Hope that I am feeling better?” What do you mean? Oh… aaaaaah…ooops…..”

I had forgotten the lie. And I got caught. Our relationship survived. But I learnt  a valuable lesson.

Of course manage perceptions with a little commonsense creativity on occasion.

But… NEVER LIE to a client. It’s a fatal mistake.

>View a video of Chris retelling this post

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7 Responses to Is it ever ok to lie to a client?

  1. Michel Bunting September 7, 2011 at 11:09 am #

    Fantastic article Chris. Really fantastic. I am enjoying your blogs immensely. We deal with this subject all the time in our work…the honesty question. I guess another way of looking at it is who are you “managing perceptions” for? Its a tricky one because we can so easily lie to ourselves, but in your example it seems to me that the “lie” was about keeping the client OK.

    I would love to hear your take on “keeping ourselves honest”. That’s the flip side of the same coin…

    “The greatest lies we tell are the ones we tell ourselves” – Nietzsche

    Cheers,
    Michael

    • Chris Savage September 7, 2011 at 11:16 am #

      Thanks Michael…appreciate The feedback. Let me think about your questions and i’ll get back to you. All The Best. Chris

  2. Geoff Ingall September 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Good stuff but, sometimes, clients ask you to lie for them. Then it gets tricky.

    • Dorota Girdlestone September 12, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

      Hi Geoff, interesting concept but at the end of the day we have to be true to ourselves and our values. I truly believe that your Client will appreciate and understand your denial of the request. It should also strenghten your relationship and trust of your Client knowing that transparency and honesty is importnat for you.

      Best,
      Dorota

  3. David Angell September 13, 2011 at 7:20 am #

    I’ve certainly had to creatively manage expectations, no doubt about it. But I’ve also found that, at the right time, a truthful explanation of challenges faced can also build trust longer term – as long as it’s couched in the right way, comes with a solution, doesn’t come across as whinging about how busy you are, or (as per Chris’s ‘how not to’) example’ is all about pressures of another client! My experience has been that if you have built a candid relationship with a client, and they know that you normally deliver, they will act like human beings if and when a problem occurs because they know you’re not bullshitting them.

    • Chris Savage September 13, 2011 at 9:10 am #

      David- absolutely agree. Thanks for making the point. Chris

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  1. 10 vital habits of client service ninjas | Wrestling Possums - November 30, 2011

    […] Never Tell The Client A Lie: a topic of a previous blog. Never lie, though as in life, it is ok to sensibly manage perceptions on occasion. […]

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