Why honesty is (still) the best policy in dealing with customers

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Honesty is the best policy: the wisdom which originated from Aesop’s Fables – Mercury and the Woodman – remains one of the most debatable views voiced by many business sages in the last few decades. If we take time to look at many companies’ record (and too, the world history), such advice indeed at first doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, considering how often and almost customary people lie, deceive and steal from others to win whatever game they were playing.

Examples for these acts abound, but an interesting one I would like to point out comes from Borland International. As quoted in the early 90s release of Harvard Business Review magazine, the US-based software company (now a subsidiary of Micro Focus International) gambled its future by ‘deceiving an ad salesman for BYTE magazine’ (a prominent microcomputer magazine in the 70s and 80s, now defunct) which surprise, surprise, eventually paid off. Sure, the risk was big, but we can see the benefit of such lie was a long-lasting business that ended up being profitable in the long run.

Game of Thrones Season 1 Poster
A fine example of intricate deception game. Image from promotional poster.


In the more modern world, another example of these contentious acts (un)surprisingly comes from the tech giant Apple. According to an article by Business Insider for instance, Apple’s employees were supposedly briefed to bend some facts when assisting customers, for instance through telling that unlocking or ‘jailbreaking’ iPhones would make them stop, or switching to a particular carrier would ‘fry the antenna’.



The Age of Transparency

Judging from the two examples above (and keeping many others in mind), so it appears that ‘dishonesty’ instead has become the prevailing policy, an immutable fact of every step within the commercial industry to survive. Though if I dare to ask, is being dishonest necessarily the best practice in these days and ages? More importantly for the sake of the ethical self within us, is it possible still to be honest and be equally rewarded at the same time?

Honestly, it is hard to tell. Inevitably many companies now are still making big bucks selling lies and get away with it. Though looking at the bright side, recent developments are at least starting to give us some good signs.

Most notably the gradual shift comes from the rapid advancement of technology, which allows seamless circulation of information around the world at a very high rate. For instance, see how news about a single offence done by a company in Europe can get to Australia in just a matter of seconds through social media – or worse (or better?), see how the global surveillance disclosures are able to take place. As a result, what this culminates in is a culture of openness and accountability, as customers expect public figures, government and companies to be more honest and transparent in their business, much to the delight of the morally correct.

With such development thus companies should evidently be more wary, as it is becoming easier for them to get caught out lying and eventually get chastised in social media. The emission scandal hitting Volkswagen is one warning. A more recent though lesser case involves the online fashion shop ASOS, where the company hadn’t yet to admit their mistakes in using inaccurate automated responses in Facebook.

User comments on ASOS Facebook page
Image taken from Facebook


To complement, various business studies further show that customers these days don’t seem to trust the big brands as much anymore. According to an article by the Guardian for instance, quoting 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 58% of global citizens trust companies. The consequence? Based on an October 2014 study by Cohn & Wolfe, this actually leads to the majority of worldwide customers increasingly demanding brand to be honest about their products and services!

The Benefits of Staying Honest

In the light of all the above, it looks like that practicing honesty is starting to pay off – or at least will be in the long run.

Many big companies have begun to realize this and actually took some initiatives, including McDonalds even. The global fast food chain generally associated with poor health launched an honesty campaign in Canada first in 2012 (and in other regions in the subsequent years) called “Our food, your questions”, allowing customers to ask whatever they want about McDonalds’ products and services – in hope of shedding some of the brand’s negative label in the process. According to Campaign, the result was considerably a success, as the “food perception and brands measured improved” within six months of the launch.



Screenshot of McDonalds' Canadian website
Image taken from McDonalds’ Canadian website


For most business thus, this means fostering honesty doesn’t have to be just a mere moral decision anymore. Long gone are the days when secrecy holds high value as a currency; being more honest and transparent instead seems to be the best way to go in the next few decades. Looking at the benefits, various research have revealed quite a few, though for me three particularly stand out:

Honesty begets honesty
The key word here is trust: if customers can trust a company for being honest, then that company can trust them to be honest in return.

For business, what this two-way relationship primarily offers is an investment to reliably gather meaningful feedback for the future. For instance, when a good, honest company is struggling to know how they can best improve their products, one way they can resort to is through asking their customers. In particular, the realm of YouTube serves as a great example for this.

PewDiePie's video comment section
Image taken from PewDiePie’s Youtube video


The parallel exists as content creators in YouTube – be they vloggers, let’s players, beauty gurus or entertainers – can easily encourage their audiences to leave a like, a dislike or comments to gauge better how they are performing. From my experience within the scene, if these creators are generally honest and open, most of the time their audience would actually take their time to do either one, two or all of the actions above – providing the honest, meaningful feedback expected.

Honesty breeds understanding
Apposite to this point is a famous customer service line from Donald Porter of British Airways: “Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.”

And the first step of fixing such faux pas more often than not begin with honesty. That is, rather than keeping their customers in the dark and leaving them to assume the worst (e.g. the company not actually doing their job, etc.), experts suggest instead for company to own up – admitting that not everything indeed can go as planned. Doing this would actually make it easier engender more understanding as well as sympathy, as it prompts customers to realize the people behind the brand are human too.

An example of what not to do can be seen through the case of ASOS mentioned above. Denying the fact that their response were automatically generated not only made them the butt of a joke within their community, but it could also lead the community to wrongly assume that ASOS simply was too lazy to invest in their customer service – which might not be necessarily true.



Nikki Dale's reply tweet to ASOS
Image taken from Nikki Dale’s Twitter page.


Honesty creates authenticity
Why authenticity matters here relates to the fact that the dynamics of commerce have changed: no longer are customers (especially the young ones) passive and vulnerable to push-marketing effort, they are now more in control of what they want, opting instead for a brand that are able to truly genuine, real and able engage with them – authentic in other words. For companies, the (only) way to do this is evidently through being honest – be it about their brand promise, principles or even their mistakes – to both themselves and their customers, allowing their genuine values to speak volume instead.

Samsung Galaxy phone
Image taken from Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Some rights reserved


According to Geoff Beattie from Cohn Global Practice Leader of Corporate Affairs in an Adweek article, company that makes a good example for this includes Samsung, which had so far ‘[delivered] as promised and [had] a transparent culture’. Instances of this can be seen as their boss admitted their first tablet simply wasn’t good enough, or that their mobile software wasn’t as good as their hardware to their investors, without really sugarcoating it.

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