Ethics Center: Business Ethics

How to Deal with Lying Customers

In ancient Greece, the famed philosopher Diogenes walked the daylight streets with a lantern in search of an honest man. In your work as a business professional, do you ever feel the same way . . . that way too many of your customers have lost touch with the truth? If so, you’re not alone.

In the sales process, prospects often tell “white lies” to deflect you. They say they can’t meet with you because of their doctor’s appointments (no such thing), their existing products or services (no such things), or their relationship with another provider (no such brother-in-law). If you do get to meet with them, they may tell more serious lies, such as hiding material information or masking their true motivations for taking your time.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of customers are truthful. But the lying happens often enough to get under your skin. In fact, as one businessperson commented, “You don’t know whether to laugh or to get mad at clients for thinking you are stupid.”

So what do you do when a prospect or customer lies to you? The answer depends on your assessment of the magnitude—and context— of the lie. For example, if a prospect gives you a phony excuse for breaking an appointment, do you simply banish them from your prospect list? Probably not, since if you did this with every fibbing prospect, you wouldn’t do much business. Rather, try to view such “white lies” as buying objections. As such, you want to meet them head on, respond to the underlying concern, then attempt to close the sale again.

If a lie is serious—for example, generating false information that hinders the appropriate sale of your product or service—then watch out. People who tell such lies are trouble magnets. You ultimately need to consider whether they’re worth dealing with.

So the next time a prospect or client lies to you, take a deep breath, then . . .

  1. Give the person the benefit of the doubt. Don’t automatically assume someone is lying. Probe to see if there’s a misunderstanding.
  2. Call the lie out. When you hear a lie, don’t just let it pass. Let the client know that it’s in both of your best interests to be completely forthright. Then ask for a clarification.
  3. Encourage the individual to come clean. When the person admits to lying, give them another chance. If the lying persists, reconsider whether you want him or her as a customer.

Finally, don’t be afraid to keep your truth lantern lit during the day. Like Diogenes, you want the world to know how much you value the truth—and welcome those who speak it.