I recently finished reading “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” by Dan Ariely. It’s a fascinating peek into how pervasive dishonesty is in our culture. Dan was looking largely at cheating, but I’m far more concerned about dishonesty in business. Economies only work when people can enter into agreements and trust the other party will deliver. In countries where the trust doesn’t exist, economies don’t flourish. And it’s quite common in corporate life to lie to customers.

Once upon a time, I worked with a rental service that rented widgets to customers. The going rental price for a widget was $10/month. The rental service advertised $3/month rental, far and wide. There was a mandatory $7 “processing fee” with every payment, however. At the end of the day, they were charging $10, just like everybody else. They were just calling 70% of it a “processing fee” instead of “rent.”

My bank used to charge 18% yearly interest for an accidental overdraft on my checking account. Then they started calling it an “overdraft fee,” and hiked it to $35-per-incident. In interest rate terms, for a $20 overdraft that I pay back a month later, this is equivalent to a yearly overdraft loan rate of 2,100%. Yes, that’s two thousand, one hundred percent. If they stated it like that, they would be lynched. But they’ve managed to reword loan interest (which is money you pay for the privilege of borrowing money) as a “fee” instead, thus allowing them to charge unbelievably high interest rates.

And just this week, I ordered a custom birthday present for a friend. I wanted it by Saturday, but the soonest the website said they could get it to me was by next Tuesday, for a $18 expedited shipping fee. Well, it turns out that the Tuesday before, they helpfully sent me the tracking number so I can watch my package travel by ground service to arrive at my doorstep next Tuesday. They produced it in two days, and sent it regular ground shipping. If they’d actually applied the $18 to shipping, the package could have been here overnight by US Express Mail or a Fedex overnight envelope. But they charged me for the overnight shipping and pocketed the difference.

I’m still getting my package on the date I agreed to, so I can’t complain. But the paper trail left by the tracking and order status information makes it clear they were simply padding the calendar time so they could charge me a lot more for shipping, ship it regular mail, and boost their profits.

When you do stuff like this and a customer finds out, they typically do not think, “well, they have to do it because it’s the only way they can have a competitive business model.” Being a very generous man who likes to think the best of people, *I* think that, of course, but my emotions don’t. They say, “I’m never going to trust these people again because they’re trying to rip me off.” Next time I’m deciding who to buy from, guess which reaction will win out?

Don’t be these losers. If you say “I’m not lying exactly. It really is a processing fee,” that’s how you know you’re lying. Denial is the tool you use to do what’s dishonest and feel good about yourself anyway.

Once upon a time, you could get away with pulling the wool over your customers’ eyes. But in these days of greater transparency, and paper trails that reveal how you work, your customers can find out what’s really going on. And when you lie, it’s very hard to regain trust. So think hard before you lie. If you get caught, it can totally backfire. And besides, I was raised to believe that lying was wrong. If you can only succeed by lowering your moral and ethical standards, that sounds like a very narrow definition of success.

Tell your customers the truth. They may surprise you. And if you’re in a business where the truth drives them away, maybe you should find another line of work.

The Truth Can Be a Good Thing, Even in Marketing

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