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).
“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.