Your Customer Is Lying … Did You Catch It?


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As much as we hate to admit it, at one time or another, we’ve all been lied to. Sometimes the lie is exposed quickly and sometimes it takes awhile to surface. In sales, lying from a customer occurs more often than we are aware of.

Did you realize that nearly every sales call starts off with the customer not disclosing the entire truth? Salespeople rarely catch it right away. Unfortunately, they often believe the lie and then complicate the situation by building the rest of the sales call around it. When this happens, the salesperson is actually committing several fatal mistakes. To start, they are demonstrating incredibly pathetic listening skills to the customer. Second, the “close ratio” winds up being lower than it should be. Finally, the customer winds up being cheated by not doing business with the salesperson and the products or services they’re offering.

Let me explain. It is usually not the customer’s intention to lie to the salesperson. At the start of a typical sales conversation, many customers don’t know how to express themselves. Their lack of confidence in who they are speaking to causes them to withhold the whole truth. After the normal pleasantries have been exchanged, the first question posed by the salesperson often causes the customer to be somewhat uncomfortable. In an effort to make the situation as comfortable as possible, they wind up reverting to familiar comments that don’t really communicate what they want to say. You know the drill. The salesperson asks the customer what they are looking for and then becomes excited about what has been shared with them. This is the point when the salesperson fails to realize they were not given the whole truth. The quick response by the customer and the innocent way in which it was spoken makes it seem accurate and complete. In fact, the customer may not even realize they lied! Because our nature is to give someone the benefit of the doubt, it makes their lie both harder to notice and, more importantly, harder to know how to respond to it.

How can you prevent the inevitable lie from ruining your sales call? First, accept the fact that you will be lied to. Second, never believe the first thing any customer tells you as the whole truth. In fact, you should never believe anything they tell you until you’ve heard the same thing twice. Every comment they make needs to be challenged with a question. However, be careful not to drill the customer as if in a police interrogation. Rather, you should probe deeper by asking for more information. This elevates the importance of what they are sharing, thus helping the customer become more confident in you. In addition, it gets the customer to elaborate on what they just said. This is where it’s critical to listen carefully because the elaboration will contain the real information you’re looking for.

For further explanation, consider the interaction that typically takes place when someone buys a car. At the start of the interaction, the salesperson may ask the shopper what he’s looking for. He answers, “I’m looking for a 4-door that will fit my family.” Although this response sounds normal and truthful, in reality, it is a lie because he left out the fact that he needs a car that also has enough storage space for the trip he makes every few weeks to his home in the mountains. Because he failed to disclose the latter information, the salesperson winds up showing him a 4-door sedan that he, the salesperson, might like. At this point, the customer becomes discouraged with the sales skills of the person helping him and either walks out or becomes disengaged. In this example, the customer’s initial comment about his needs led the salesperson down the wrong path. What the salesperson should have done is disregard the initial comment unless it was repeated. He should have immediately asked a follow-up question regarding the customer’s first response. By continuing to probe, the salesperson would be able to draw out of the customer precisely what it is he’s looking for. In addition, the shopper will begin to repeat his needs and upon hearing something a second time, the salesperson would know he can take the information to the bank.

Although the example used above was very simple, the same thing happens in the most complex of buying situations, whether business-to-business or business-to-consumer. We’re all human and we all have an innate sense of not wanting to share our needs with people we don’t have confidence in. Because of the number of poor salespeople every customer has had to deal with over the years, the level of confidence is rarely high when a customer meets a salesperson for the first time. Unfortunately, human nature can cause this lying to even occur with those who we have done business with before. Customers will rarely walk into a buying situation with their thoughts scripted and their actions choreographed. Because of this, withholding information is just as likely to occur between two people who have an established relationship as it is with two people who just met. Finally, keep in mind that you will even have to deal with it with professional buyers. Be ready for it.

When you follow this method of asking follow-up questions, you actually do several things. First, you allow the customer to express what they are looking for in their own words. Second, you let the customer feel they’re in control of the process. Third, and best of all, because the customer feels powerful, they will become less defensive and more willing to share with you their true needs. This, in turn, allows you to draw out the best solution for the customer and when you do, you’re in a much better position to maximize your profit because you’re allowing the customer to maximize their desires.

In a sales call, challenge everything that is said with a follow-up question. Don’t accept anything as fact until you’ve heard the customer say it at least twice. Avoid sabotaging the success of the sales call by being prepared to accurately identify the needs of the customer through questions. Catch them in the act of lying and then use it to your advantage!

Mark Hunter
Mark Hunter, "The Sales Hunter," is a sales expert who speaks to thousands of people each year on how to increase their sales profitability. For more information or to receive a free weekly sales tip via email, contact "The Sales Hunter" at


  1. Mark,

    Customers don’t just lie in the sales context. CSR’s routinely are lied to when customers complain. Many customers will beef up the story, so that the get the result they want. It also happens when customers return faulty goods. ‘It was like that when I tried it on’ is a common refrain in apparel retail settings, when the unembellished truth is probably that the customer dribbled melting ice-cream on to that pretty little dress.

    The question we face, as protectors and advocates of great customer experience, is what to do about it. There is an argument which says that if the lier is a highly valued customer, we should courteously allow the matter to pass unchallenged. However, the counterargument is that asking CSR’s to become collaborators in deception, is both immoral and corrupt.

    We have two discourses in collision here. Discourse 1 says that the only thing that matters is retaining the customer’s future value. Discourse 2 says no-one’s integrity should be compomised by being party to a deception.

    So, which discourse should dominate?

    Francis Buttle

  2. Mark, Francis,

    Lies by customers to CSRs happen all the time and you’re right, it is because they hope to get the results they want. It is important to realize part of the problem is because they – the customers – feel they were lied to in the first place. At least if they weren’t lied to they were misled.

    As an example, your company told them if they purchased the product by the 8th they would have it by the 15th but it didn’t come in until the 17th. All of the protestations to the contrary, the buyer was disappointed and, very possibly, embarrassed by the service failure. (If he/she is the buying agent, did he/she commit to Operations the product would be there on the 15th?)

    CSRs are becoming much more adept at handling these types of situations by apologizing to the customer, admitting an error occurred, and asking how they can make things right.

    In the face of what they feel to be an untruth, the CSR can ask for substantiation in writing so they (the CSR) can go to his/her boss and represent the customer’s concerns accurately. This may disarm the customer or…it may show the CSR that the customer isn’t lying!

    The issue isn’t who is more right or who is more wrong, it is how do we address this situation and then continue on in a good business relationship?

    Ken Hall

  3. Vendors can be deceptive–we pretty much expect that marketing and sales messages will paint a more glorious picture than the reality. So why wouldn’t customers lie, too?

    After all, it’s human nature to deceive. A 1996 study by a Univ. of Virginia psychologist found that lies are commonplace: most people lie once or twice a day, not counting mindless pleasantries.

    And it’s not always for nefarious reasons. Lying can be a kind of social lubricant that makes life more enjoyable. But in business/customer relationships, getting the wrong information for whatever reason could be hazardous.

    Here’s some food for thought from The Truth About Lying in Psychology Today:

    “Certainly anyone who insists on condemning all lies should ponder what would happen if we could reliably tell when our family, friends, colleagues, and government leaders were deceiving us. It’s tempting to think that the world would become a better place when purged of the deceptions that seem to interfere with our attempts at genuine communication or intimacy. On the other hand, perhaps our social lives would collapse under the weight of relentless honesty, with unveiled truths destroying our ability to connect with others. The ubiquity of lying is clearly a problem, but would we want to will away all of our lies? Let’s be honest.”

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  4. I don’t think it is as straightforward as it is being presented here. I agree that the customer sometimes has been misinformed or misled or that communication at the front end was lacking. However, when the customer service department takes the call, the customer may “beef up” the story, lie because the customer wants something for free that was never promised to the customer, be abusive to the customer service representative and/or make a complaint before any request for services has been made because the customer thinks that this will speed up the delivery of services. When the sales people are separated from the service delivery people and the customer service department, a huge burden is imposed on the customer service and service delivery department to deliver on the promises made. Sometimes that is impossible. Since sales people are the life blood of the company, they are rarely held to account for their part in failing to communicate with the customer up front — instead the service providers and customer service representatives are required to “make it right” and “save the sale”.

    The entire company needs to be involved in customer service.



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