Category Archives: Customer Experience

Fandango’s VIP Club Inspires No Loyalty

I don’t usually blog about my bad buying experiences, but occasionally there’s a debacle that oozes horrible from every pore. When that happens, I take it as a civic duty to write about it. It’s a way to help others avoid the folly I’m about to describe.

This incident started last Saturday when I asked my octogenarian mother to accompany me to dinner and a movie that evening. We agreed on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I went online to select a showtime and seats.

I was presented four purchase options. One was to buy directly through the theater’s website, and the other three were through different ticket services. The theater’s webpage loaded slowly, so I bailed and clicked on a link to a ticket broker called Fandango, a service I had never used. The Fandango page popped right up, and I quickly selected two adjacent seats. My mom and I would go to the 7:40 pm screening, which allowed a leisurely 6 pm dinner, and an unhurried amble around the block to the theater. Perfect for mom!

But not long after I completed the ticket transaction, it began to snow. A lot. Then, right on cue, my cell phone rang. It was Mom. “Hi Dear. It’s really a mess out there. I’d rather you not drive over,” she said. “Let’s do this tomorrow.” Her tone of voice imparted that any protest would be futile.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll swap the tickets. We’ll go Sunday.”

“Call the theater and tell them your mother doesn’t want to venture out in the snow,” she helpfully suggested, adding, “They’ll understand.” Awwwww! How adorably pre-internet!

“Well Mom, it’s like this, I bought these online through a ticket bro . . . .” I cut myself off in mid-sentence. My mother does not use the Internet or email, so my e-commerce explanations have always ended with her changing the subject to something less baffling. I pivoted to a simpler, more dependable assurance: “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll take care of it.”

After I hung up, I armed myself with my newly-minted Fandango confirmation number and pulled up the Fandango website. I navigated to the section for refunds and exchanges, and populated the requisite fields. Although I’m not a chat fan, that was my only option for interaction. I clicked Submit.

Immediately, Fandango returned a little informational box that showed I was #82 in the service queue, and the expected wait time for chatting with a chat-person was fifty-seven minutes. Fifty-freaking-seven minutes! For a ticket exchange. Fortunately, the box dynamically updated my position in the queue, which meant I could do other tasks while I endured the inconvenience.

The queue melted slowly. 78 . . . 66 . . .61. I felt like the 50’s and 40’s went on interminably, but still, I hung in there. When my position nudged south of 40, I felt encouraged. Over halfway there . . . Can’t be long now . . . 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . It’s happening! Finally, #1! Yes, there is a God! But please – this would be a terrible time for a power failure, or for my router to spontaneously reboot. Relief. Then . . . It happened. The Fandango chat-person I had waited almost one hour to chat with burst onto my screen, like a long-lost friend. “Hi. I’m Chelsea.”

I explained my issue by typing, “I purchased one adult and one senior ticket for tonight’s 7:40 show of Three Billboards at AMC Shirlington, and now it’s snowing in Virginia, and the senior doesn’t want to go out in the snow. Can I exchange my tickets for tomorrow?” Chelsea replied by asking me to be patient while she “investigated.” Investigated? This didn’t bode well.

A few minutes went by, and with her investigation apparently completed, Chelsea responded that I could have a refund, but Fandango requires that I enroll in their VIP Club to process the transaction.

“You’re kidding, right?” I typed, concealing the magnitude of my dismay. Had I used all caps and followed my question with six exclamation marks, Chelsea would have had a more accurate impression.

“No, I’m not,” Chelsea retorted. It was the most meaningful clue I had indicating she wasn’t a chatbot. But her response was wrapped inside bloated Fandango policy mumbo-jumbo that I was too angry to parse. Over an hour had transpired since I initiated my exchange request, and Fandango was browbeating me into joining their VIP club. That seemed wrong. Here I was having a terrible experience, and Fandango wanted me to sign up for . . . their VIP Club?  Damn the ticket exchange! Joining the VIP Club for the sole purpose of exchanging my ticket would send Fandango the wrong message.

As you probably guessed, my chat session with Chelsea did not end on an upbeat note. I’ll just say that if she had any confusion regarding my opinion about the exchange policy, it’s because she stopped reading her screen.

At this point, I became wistful about my mother’s quaint suggestion to call the theater to facilitate the exchange. It reminded me that in many ways, online commerce has not lived up to its promise. Contrary to what pundits often assert, it certainly hasn’t “put the customer in charge.” Far from it. This vignette underscores how, for consumers, the most banal transactions have become unbearably complicated.

Pre-Internet, a moviegoer tendered payment to a cashier at the theater’s ticket window, a machine would spit a generic paper ticket, and an usher would rip the ticket in half when the patron entered the theater. The experience was pretty easy for customers, but cumbersome and labor-intensive for theaters. But the bigger pain for theater operators was their dearth of information. Which consumers went to which movies? How often? What were their demographics? Who did they go with? What were their buying proclivities? They knew very little, and what they did know required expensive and time-consuming research.

Today, information power has swung all the way to theater operators and their channel partners, where it’s likely to stick. Every activity involved in a customer’s movie journey is tracked, measured, archived, and data-mined. And in Fandango’s case, contrivances such as VIP Club membership as a vehicle for ticket exchanges have been established to fatten their information power even further. The ancillary systems driving an online ticket transaction in 2018 are so deep and expansive that it would take hours to figure out how it all works, and even longer to understand where the data goes. Sure – it’s sophisticated, but from the customer’s point of view, it’s hard to think of what I have described as progress. “Your position in the queue is now . . . 82. Please be patient while we investigate . . .”

I don’t blame bad customer experience on technology. I blame it on the executives who misuse it. When that happens, you get Fandango, hour-long service queues, unresolved transaction problems, the coldness and anonymity of online chat, and weird demands to join a VIP Club that you have no interest whatsoever in joining.

My resistance to joining Fandango’s VIP Club emanates from a widespread marketing practice euphemistically called engagement, and marketers delude themselves into believing that customers find it appealing. Many routine activities that consumers do online uncork a torrent of follow-on stuff from vendors, including post-purchase satisfaction surveys, confirmations, confirmations of confirmations, reminders , promotions, deals, newsletters, thank you correspondence, updates, and gratuitous advertising. All from the one-off car rental I made with Budget when I travelled to Chicago in 2017, or the pair of comedy club tickets I purchased from Ticketmaster. Extinguishing outreach from these vendors and their “partners” compares to scraping a wad of chewing gum off my shoes – you never quite get rid of it. “What part of unsubscribe don’t you understand?” Little wonder that I cringed when Chelsea delivered her membership ultimatum.

Back to Fandango and their VIP Club coercion. I have a question for marketers to ponder: if a person bolts from your company after completing just one transaction, and he shrilly Tweets to four gazillion followers that he’ll never buy from you again, is that churn? Or, does the scenario merit a category unto itself?

Fandango, if you’re listening, some lessons for your next strategy meeting from this permanently alienated one-time customer: 

  1. If your business model adds friction to the most basic transactions, tweak your model.
  1. Develop scenarios for the most common service transactions – say, a ticket exchange. Then figure out how to blow your customer’s socks off with how easy it is to accomplish through your service.
  1. Sell your new customers (you know who they are!) on your VIP Club by first delighting the daylights out of them (see #2). From there, your VIP Club membership sales pitch will sing, and conversions will soar!
  1. Integrate your ticket exchange process to an open-source weather or road condition app. A tiny bit of BI (Business Intelligence) would have tipped off your service software that the reason I contacted Fandango was to reschedule a movie reservation.
  1. Accept that not every person who purchases through Fandango wants a relationship with your company. Some just want to purchase a movie ticket. Shouldn’t you design a way to make that happen profitably?

There’s little doubt that information technology enables better outcomes for both customers and businesses. Like with any technology, as some problems are solved, new ones are created. Pre-Internet, our professional watchword was “give customers what they want!” IT has encouraged a mutation of that ideal: “give customers what we want them to want.” In that regard, Fandango has made their intentions abundantly clear through their ticket exchange policy.

A post-script: The weather cleared up, and my mom and I saw Three Billboards the following night. I thought the movie was OK, though not great. But my mom and I had a wonderful time together.

Eight Marketing Gifts I’d Rather Not Have This Holiday Season

With the holidays rapidly approaching, people are beginning to think about the perfect gift to give a partner, friend, colleague, or relative. Best to plan carefully, because we’re regularly enlightened with new insight about which gifts not to give.

According to a 2015 Newsweek article, “42 percent of women returned holiday gifts from their husbands (who should theoretically have at least some insider gifting knowledge) . . . 17 percent of [gift] recipients planned to donate an unwanted present, 13 percent planned to re-gift one and 10 percent would simply throw the bad gift away. A GameStop survey indicated that 98 percent of their customers had received at least one holiday gift that they’d rather return.”  While such rejection creates a logistical pain for retailers, returns drive billions in shipping revenue for UPS and FedEx. At least someone’s happy.

These days, many of my friends and family have discovered the powerful efficiency of sending gift cards – a task they can complete in seconds from almost anywhere. They’re convenient for me, too, because I can spend them however I want. Still, it seems every year I wind up with a pile of marketing gizmos I need to get rid of. Stuff I never ask for, and don’t want to keep. If only I could find someone willing to take them back.

Item: holiday e-cards
Reason for return: Insincere – even the “personalized” ones. Worse than receiving a greeting addressed to Current Occupant.

Item: marketing and sales stories
Reason for return: Whenever I read one, I find myself hoping for candor, but I never find it.

Item: customer case studies
Reason for return: I get a bunch from vendors every year. They bother me, because the name connotes objectivity. Really, they’re just advertising.

Item: personalization
Reason for return: data hackers already know more than enough about me. And my ego can survive without seeing my name and personal preferences everywhere I go online.

Item: Twitter
Reason for return: I don’t like it when people attempt to explain complex issues like sexual assault and brain chemistry in 280-character snippets. Also, an accomplished executive destroyed her career when she Tweeted before thinking. That worries me, because it could happen to anybody.

Item: gamification
Reason for return: Demotivating and annoying. At this point in my life, I don’t need to measure everything I do, and I don’t feel compelled to enter the results into a competition.

Item: robo marketing calls.
Reason for return: Companies send this horrible gift every year. Nobody cares to take it back.

Item: chatbots
Reason for return: Defective. Don’t understand sarcasm, and they get confused when I type long strings of expletives.

Sorry, marketers. I know you want to please me with these gifts. But once I remove the ribbon and wrapping paper, they don’t . . . add value! I don’t like to appear ungrateful, but someone – anyone – put them back in a box, and don’t send them.

A Future Without Secrets? Why We Need Ethical Data Governance

 

Do You Want to Know a Secret? 

When the Beatles released this song in 1963, the world was different. Less frantic, and in many ways, blissfully naïve.

Listen/ Do you want to know a secret/Do you promise not to tell?, whoa oh, oh

Let me whisper in your ear/ Say the words you long to hear/ I’m in love with you!

Fifty years of social progress has obviated the need for partners to wax poetic. In 2014, Good2Go, an iPhone application, was launched to help people bypass romance and jump to a lascivious endgame. Shortly afterward, Apple kicked Good2Go off its platform, citing application guidelines that prohibit objectionable or crude content. There were few protests, because it turns out, Good2Go wasn’t a hit with customers, either. Among the comments: “Even scarier than talking about sex,” and “worse than nothing.”

No secrets, and no promises not to tell. When it was originally released, Good2Go required users to provide the name of their partner du jour, time consent was given, and each person’s state of sobriety. The ostensible purpose for creating Good2Go was to help people document encounters before things got steamy, should there be allegations of impropriety later on.

But once the data was captured, what did the company intend to do with it? I don’t know, exactly. One thing’s for certain: it wasn’t just going to sit there, un-analyzed, or un-shared.

By pressing Submit, key data about the hookup breezed into the cloud. No strings attached, just like the liaison. Good2Go offered a curt privacy disclaimer: “We may not be able to control how your personal information is treated, transferred, or used.” Paul McCartney, step aside! There’s nothing like legal fine print to stoke the fires of passion.

If you’re a control freak about your personal information, some free advice: chuck your computer and iPhone immediately, and get off the grid. Wait about 20 years. After that, there will be no secrets. Personal privacy will be quaint anachronism, and everyone will be part of a scandal. One upside: nobody will care.

Whenever we give up personal details – whether online, over the phone, or on paper – the best we can hope for is that the custodians of our data will behave ethically, and take adequate measures to conceal our information from those who might abuse it. Recently, the Equifax data hack made it clear those are dangerous assumptions. The company’s massive databases contained millions of individual social security numbers, birth dates, driver’s license numbers and credit scores, but Equifax executives didn’t give a tinker’s damn whether consumers were protected.

The company squandered opportunities to prevent outsiders from hacking into this sensitive information, allowing 143 million private records to fall into nefarious hands. “The Equifax hacks are a case study in why we need better data breach laws . . . Equifax handled a disastrous hack poorly. But the core of their behavior isn’t unusual,” read a headline on Vox, an online media website.

Breaches happen more than most people know. Your right to be informed depends on where you live. “The clamor for a standardized data breach notification requirement has become almost as quotidian as a data breach itself. Companies no longer wonder whether they will ever have to notify consumers of a breach but rather when they will do so. Incident response planning, however, is currently complicated by the existence of 47 different state breach notification laws and those of additional jurisdictions such as D.C., New York City, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands. The variety is no doubt confusing and increases the compliance costs for companies,” according to another article, Examining the President’s Proposed National Data Breach Notification Standard Against Existing Legislation.

That article was written in 2015, when Obama was president, and before the government stopped caring about protecting consumers. With Trump in office, don’t hold your breath waiting for this initiative. In the meantime, if you want to navigate the thicket of data breach notification laws state-by-state, click here. Please remind me who has information power: Consumers – or the companies that use their data? I keep forgetting.

Sometimes, a company has good reasons to delay disclosure about a data breach. For example, a forensic investigation might require secrecy. Or, a company might need to learn the full extent of a breach before sharing information with customers. But proving malfeasance can be difficult. Equifax hasn’t disclosed exactly why it waited weeks to inform customers about the breach, but during that time, its senior executives sold millions of dollars of Equifax stock. A company spokesperson told The Washington Post that at the time, the company’s executives had no knowledge of the breach.

“No knowledge” . . . of 143 million stolen records . . . That sounds far-fetched to me, too. The hacking and the timing of the stock sale brought Equifax CEO Richard F. Smith in front of Elizabeth Warren for a Senate hearing. He had some ‘splaining to do, and he didn’t project well in front of the cameras. In characteristic fashion, Senator Warren emasculated him the same way she did Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. In a company press release from September 7, after the breach was publicly disclosed, Smith said, “We pride ourselves on being a leader in managing and protecting data, and we are conducting a thorough review of our overall security operations.” I believe the second part of that sentence, but I’m calling BS on the first.

Personal privacy faces unprecedented threats. In the digital era, almost everything we do leaves a trail of recorded transactions and events that is harvested and maintained. After it’s released into the cloud, it’s hard to know who – or what – controls it. As a result, we have far less control over our data privacy than we did 30 years ago, when smaller amounts of our data were housed in cumbersome silos. But the silos came down, along with the cost of storing data. Most significantly, companies have developed sophisticated tools and algorithms to systematically exploit it. As a result, corporations and government agencies have steadily gained hegemony over our data and our privacy. Today, they control five powerful variables that profoundly affect our privacy: capture, use, retention, protection, and ownership of consumer data.

Capture: Though we might not be aware, we routinely give up a mother lode of personal details every second through our mobile phones, wearable sensors, and the IoT (Internet of Things). Even more digital exhaust gets captured and recorded through devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, which are at their core, eavesdropping devices. But for now, I’ve stopped fussing because doing so compares to peeing into the wind. Nobody wants to give up the latest digital gadgetry, and or to suffer the indignities of not having “personalized experiences.” I concede that the data capture pig has permanently left his pen. He has grown too strong to restrain, too fat to ever fit back through the gate.

From here, I’ll focus on manageable issues:

Use: Companies can – and should – be held accountable for how they use personal information. “Compliance with federal and state laws” does not absolve them from providing responsible governance and strong consumer protection.

Retention: How long should companies keep personal data? Do customers have a right to be forgotten, as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws in Europe (pending May, 2018) will enable? What should companies disclose to consumers? And is it ethical for companies to charge customers for deleting personal information? These not-hypothetical questions were at the center of the Ashley Madison hacking case, in which the company assessed its customers a fee for expunging their personal data. Rather than deleting the data as promised, Ashley Madison simply changed the record status to “inactive,” and moved the files to a backend server. Those records were stolen in the hack, along with the active ones.

Protection: As data has increased in value, it has become a more attractive target for theft. The threats are significant and omnipresent. But regulation and corporate risk mitigation measures such as cyber-security haven’t kept pace. The nine largest consumer data hacks leading up to Equifax in 2017 illustrate the outcomes when companies are lackadaisical about data security. The direct costs are substantial, the indirect costs incalculable.

Ownership: The question of data ownership is central to preserving consumer privacy. But sometimes, provenance and ownership are difficult to track. Further, Terms of Service statements aren’t explicit, and once consumers have created data, they rarely control it. And since data can be copied, sold, and repackaged, and re-sold, custodianship and responsibilities for protecting consumer data becomes a murky issue. Yet, privacy preservation in the digital age demands clarity over this basic matter.

The road ahead. “The increased amount of and use of data calls into questions pressing issues of fairness, responsibility and accountability, and whether existing legislation is fit to safeguard against harm to an individual or group’s privacy, welfare or physical safety,” according to the Open Data Institute’s September 13, 2017 report, Ethical Data Handling. Public safety should not be taken for granted, and the benevolence of government never assumed. As I wrote in an article, The Dark Side of Online Lead Generation, companies routinely use data to exploit the most vulnerable consumers – who can also be the most profitable. 

Access to consumer information confers an obligation on an organization to

1. be transparent about ownership,

2. control how the data is used,

3. ensure the data is protected from unintended use, and

4. ensure that consumers will not be harmed.

This is a monumental order. Why would any company voluntarily sign up? Because it’s the ethical, customer-centric thing to do. But there are self-serving advantages, too: First, without adopting constraints, businesses will undermine their revenue generation efforts. Ethical data governance enables trust. Second, companies that demonstrate strong data governance will achieve competitive advantages over ones that are sloppy and uncaring.

To create good privacy outcomes for customers, executives must answer five data-governance questions:

  1. Does our use of the data reflect consumer preferences?
  2. Is our intended use for this data ethical?
  3. Is our intended use fair and respectful to our customers and prospects?
  4. Have our customers been provided any control over how their data is collected, stored, and used?
  5. Is our organization appropriately transparent about our intentions, policies, and safeguards?

The as-is state, circa October, 2017. A passage extracted from a privacy statement that just landed on my desk serves as a shiny emblem for how far we need to go with data governance:

“To protect your personal information from unauthorized access and use, we use security measures that comply with federal and state laws. These measures include computer safeguards and secured files and buildings. We limit access to your information to those who need it to do their job.”

These strictures, if you want to call them that, offer no solace to the wary.

When a company captures or requests information from customers, they should reveal,

  1. what data is being collected
  2. the entity or company that owns the data
  3. who has access to that data
  4. specifics regarding how the data will be used
  5. existing internal measures that protect confidentiality
  6. whether the data will be shared with third parties, which ones, and for what purpose(s)
  7. the length of time that data will be retained
  8. customer rights for data erasure and/or amendment
  9. where to go within the organization for redress of consumer issues regarding data
  10. the federal, state, and local laws that govern the company’s use of that data

“Business data is everything. Protect it well,” reads a full-page ad for Carbonite, a data security company. In previous articles, I have complained about companies trivializing C-Level roles (do companies really need Chief Listening Officers?). But the tocsin that just sounded from the Equifax hack tells us that it’s past time to give Data Governance a chair in the C-Suite. (Note: the GDPR laws mandate certain companies assign a Data Protection Officer or DPO.) Should a new position be created, CDGO, Chief Data Governance Officer? I’ll make the case in a future article.

A regulated market? “A regulated national information market could allow personal information to be bought and sold, conferring on the seller the right to determine how much information is divulged,” Kenneth Laudon of New York University wrote in a 1996 article titled Markets and Privacy. He was ahead of his time. “More recently, the World Economic Forum proposed the concept of a data bank account. A person’s data, it suggested should ‘reside in an account where it would be controlled, managed, exchanged and accounted for.’ The idea seems elegant, but neither a market nor data accounts have materialized yet,” according to The Economist (Fuel of the Future, May 6, 2017).

Ethical data governance: the way forward. A white paper, Guiding Principles for the Ethical Use of Data   by Jennifer Glasgow and Sheila Colclasure, offers a clear case for corporate data governance: “As in any relationship, business or otherwise, trust needs to be earned, sustained and nurtured over time. To succeed in the long run brands, have to first be accountable. Therefore, a common understanding of what it means to act ethically with consumer data is required. Without a common set of rules or proper governance, it’s unrealistic to assume brands across a vast marketplace can meet this expectation and maintain the trust of the consumers they serve over time.”

Sounds like common sense. Why then, do so many companies choose a riskier, ethically-shaky path? Greed? Naivete? Stupidity? Lack of will? It’s hard to say, exactly.

Listen/ Do you want to know a secret/ Do you promise not to tell?

Ethical data governance will help companies fulfill this critically important consumer expectation.

Author’s note: To read the previous articles in this series about data privacy and risk, please click the links below:

In the Digital Revolution, Customers Have Nothing to Lose But Their Privacy 

Companies That Abuse Consumer Privacy Might Feel Their Fury – Again

Do Salespeople Lie More Than Other Professionals?

 

Compared to other professions, are salespeople disproportionately prone to lying? To reveal the answer, I searched online for most dishonest professions, and was rewarded with several surveys. One study conducted in 2014 listed the top 10 least honest (the number following indicates the percentage of survey respondents who believed the profession trustworthy):

Lobbyists – 6%
Members of Congress – 8%
Car salespeople – 9%
State office holders – 14%
Advertising practitioners – 14%
TV reporters – 20%
Lawyers – 20%
Newspaper reporters – 21%
Business executives – 22%
Local office holders – 23%

Go us! Of the top 10 most dishonest professions, biz-developers hold only three slots – lobbyists, car salespeople, and advertising practitioners. Still, as marketing/sales professionals, we’re over-the-top touchy about our honesty image.

Earlier this month, a writer on LinkedIn asked whether it’s acceptable for salespeople to lie. He felt that lying seems the new normal in selling, and he invited others to weigh in. Some opinions were as malleable as a steel girder:

  • “My answer is short and simple – no.”
  • “A person is either honest or a liar. The Truth is not conditional. Half-truths are lies.”
  • “Never acceptable. Persuasion is a positively reinforced message through fact and data driven decisions.”
  • “just don’t do it.”

These thoughts outline an archetype: the impeccably honest salesperson who never lies, never distorts, and never withholds facts and information. Unfortunately, that archetype represents an impossibly high bar. Try any of them out on a newbie rep. Chances are, he or she will flunk day one on the job. Same for days two and three – assuming they get that far. And experienced reps will just roll their eyes. “Get a grip, pal!”

“Just don’t do it.” If only things were that simple. For hundreds of years, the meaning of honesty has been debated by legal scholars, judged in courts, and mulled by philosophers. Honesty is difficult to define. One reason we often pad the word with adjectives: pure honesty, partial honesty, brutal honesty, radical honesty, morally honest, and mostly honest. The same for truth and lies. Few would argue that white lies aren’t acceptable, or that honest facts aren’t used for fabricating illusion.

One person’s bald-faced lie is someone else’s minor distortion. Should things be any different in selling? Is there something magical or different about sales that invites draconian edicts like these? Emphatically, no. Lying appears the “new normal” in selling because by these standards, lying is . . . pretty normal. And it’s hardly new.

The advocates of “no lying” need to abandon their idealized interpretations of truth purity because they are divorced from selling reality. A major reason is that the default rhetoric of marketing and sales tends toward certainty – especially for describing outcomes and results. We favor concrete terms like definitely, will, guaranteed, and proven. No rep wins the boss’s approval by adopting mealier – but more honest – terms like probably, possibly, could, and might. I challenge anyone to find a Chief Sales Officer willing to trade off persuasive power for a sworn commitment to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Never acceptable.” If marketers followed pure honesty to the letter, the first thing on the chopping block would be storytelling. I have yet to read one sales story that hasn’t been factually creative, at best. The second thing to go would be “case studies,” since they are never as objective as the name implies.

Admonishing salespeople to “never lie,” only creates dissonance and goal conflict. Managers manufacture failure by insisting their reps behave “100% honestly,” while holding a hatchet over their necks as motivation to achieve goal. Inevitably, the rep must choose. And sadly, saying “I got fired for doing the right thing for my customer” doesn’t merit an invitation for a second job interview. Sales Culture Training 101: “No matter what, make quota.” Message, received.

That’s not the only problem. When “never lie” absolutism exists, ethical risks lurk nearby. Absolutism crushes debate and discussion. And when it comes to honesty and ethical behavior toward customers, nuanced conversations are sorely needed. The problem with these LinkedIn comments is that there’s no room for interpretation.

At its most atavistic, selling is persuasion. And persuasion requires distortion. Distortion of fact, distortion of meaning, distortion of reality and urgency. Over beer, we can hold a simpatico conversation to parse the differences between distortion and lies. We can exchange information about what we allow ourselves to do and say when representing our companies, and the honesty lines we refuse to cross. We can talk about the influence of David Hume and Diogenes. One thing is certain: neither our honesty interpretations nor our ethical boundaries will be identical.

According to these absolutists, distortion and lying are equivalent. My recommendation: don’t follow their advice. If you want your customer to take action – say, for example, to buy from you and not from your competitor – you must make sure they believe that it’s fully in their interest to do so, and that ordering now is a priority. You can’t do that without tweaking reality to promote your point of view.

For salespeople, balancing honesty and persuasion means walking a hair-thin line. Same for ego and empathy. All are needed for success, but they collide and clunk against one another. “It’s a miracle anyone can do this job,” Philip Broughton wrote in his book, The Art of the Sale. No joke.

I am not a proponent of lying as a sales tactic. I am not advocating deceit and misrepresentation as a business practice. And I am not saying that anything goes as long as it results in revenue. Far from it. I am saying that marketers and salespeople should strive for honesty and high ethical standards in their professional conduct. I am also saying that to be effective, salespeople need a rational basis for ethical consideration, and “never lie” undermines that goal. We need salespeople who are strong critical thinkers, not sycophantic believers.

A personal confession: I have made sales lies. Repeatedly. Here are three:

1. “I can’t offer you a lower price.” Lie. Prices are quite easy for vendors to massage, and rarely – if ever – is it impossible to offer a lower price, as “can’t” connotes. Customers know it. Everyone knows it.

What’s more truthful? How about, 1) “it’s not convenient for me reduce my price,” or 2) “if I allow you to buy at the lower price, my profit margins will erode, and our CFO will get angry with me,” or 3) “I get higher commission selling at list price, and I need the income this quarter.”

2. “Buying my company’s product is the best use of your resources right now.” Lie. I’ve never been 100% sure when using superlatives, yet I still use them. Besides, with this lie, I have rarely had full visibility into every project a company is considering anyway. So I’m not being fully honest when making the claim.

What’s more truthful? 1) “based on my analysis of the numbers you provided me, you should probably meet your expected financial return,” 2) “My competitor’s product does pretty much the same thing, so you can’t go wrong choosing either one of us,” 3) “I understand why you want to implement my proposal now, but based on what I have seen, you’d be much better off solving [name of project that my company doesn’t provide a product for].”

3. “Our machines have highest performance rating in the industry.” Lie, by omission. But still a lie. Is highest performance rating based on MTBF (mean time between failures)? Longevity of components? Quality of output? All of these? And where was the benchmarking performed? – In house? Through an objective third-party? And there’s that superlative problem again: highest.

What’s more truthful? 1) “We have the highest performance rating in one category.” 2) “We performed the benchmarking in-house.” 3) “Our in-house test results always look better than what you will achieve in the field.”

I harbor no remorse for committing any of these. But if you’re into “never lie,” try some of the more truthful statements with your customers, and let me know the results.

I want to head off a concern right now. You might already be thinking, “These are trivial lies. They are not the kind that get anyone into trouble.” Fair point. But then I’d urge you to identify what type of lies really get your dander up. Lies like telling customers, “We have offices in 28 states,” when those “offices” are actually indirect employees working virtually from their homes? Or, my favorite, “Our software has over 48 installs,” when two-thirds of them are dormant beta accounts that have made no commitment to purchase? Smile, wink. These statements are kinda, sorta true, and because of that, they stink around the edges. I don’t like them. Mostly, I get annoyed with the CMO’s explanation, which often begins, “Well, technically . . .”

Maybe we need a new taxonomy for marketing lies. Here’s what I propose:

Class I lies: run-of-the-mill marketing fluff, flamboyant writing, and expected braggadocio. The claims prospects are already jaded to. “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” Or “We’re the industry leader!” There’s really no foul for broadcasting any of this stuff. If any prospect bases a purchase decision solely on such claims, well, shame on them.

Class II lies: deeper, more egregious transgressions. Stuff that generates fines, lawsuits, and bitterly negative Yelp reviews. Example: “Our brain games help users achieve full potential in every aspect of life,” which got Lumosity fined by the FTC. The FTC asserted there was no scientific proof to substantiate that claim, along with others Lumosity made.

Class III lies: I call these BHAL’s (Big Hairy Audacious Lies), because of their potential to directly and significantly influence a customer’s buying decision. Lies that obscure the true cost of procurement or operations. Lies that patently overstate the capability of a product, or promise a result that can never be delivered. The Fyre Festival debacle resulted from a series of Class III lies.

If your business objective is to instill ethics and integrity in your biz-dev organization, don’t fret over Class I lies. Just keep your eye on them to make sure they don’t become more serious. Propagating Class II and Class III lies, on the other hand, substantially increase business and stakeholder risks, and they must be carefully managed. Here are some important practices:

  1. Recognize that honesty and truth are subject to interpretation, and there’s often ambiguity in selling situations.
  2. Model ethical, honest behavior from the top echelons of the company. Executives who are not vocal proponents, or who are not rigorous about their own honest conduct cannot expect any different from employees.
  3. Encourage internal discussions among staff about what they encounter in sales and marketing situations, and how they make choices.
  4. Offer guidelines to staff when rules don’t fit. Avoid vague requests like “don’t be too salesy,” or “don’t over-promise.” Instead, ask your staff to think about what’s ethical in selling, and to always consider, “what is the right thing to do?”
  5. Don’t penalize honesty by creating conflict. It happens more than companies realize. If Wells Fargo taught us anything, it’s that a salesperson should never have to decide between being honest with customers, or keeping his or her job.
  6. Provide clarity for what’s restricted by documenting them in writing, and reviewing them routinely with your staff. The Class III lies that significantly influence customer decisions, that directly contradict product specifications or contract terms, that inflate or falsify an employee’s credentials. The restrictions should also include what can – and cannot – be said about competitors, performance benchmarking data, pricing commitments, and other financial disclosures.

P. T. Barnum, one of the greatest salespeople who ever lived, was adamantly against fraudulent selling, but he recognized the subtle nuances about honesty and lying:

“An honest man who arrests public attention will be called a “humbug,”‘ but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a ‘humbug.’ He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an [outrageous] manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.”

As Broughton observed, “There is evidently a line here somewhere between humbug and deception, between Barnumesque hype and outright lies, between reading your customers to give them what they need and exploiting their weakness to your own advantage.”

I hope the “never lie” proponents figure that out.

Disobedience: A How-to Guide for Managers and Employees

Somewhere, a manager just ordered an employee to take a questionable action. To do something immoral or stupid. Something that causes harm to customers. There – it just happened again! In less than the time it takes to read this paragraph. Relentless wrongdoing. It happens all over the world.

It was a demand to ignore a customer’s legitimate complaint. An instruction to deny a refund when it was owed. An assignment to use big data to exploit vulnerable customers. A request to physically remove a passenger from an airplane because his seat was needed for someone else. “Follow the rules. Your job depends on it.”

The rule-following edict is a painful artifact of an abiding corporate culture that champions profits uber alle. Millennials, listen up: free thinkers are an impediment to efficiency. They don’t mesh with our manic, bottom-line obsessed business environment. “Objections are a luxury. We have a quota to meet, and there are only so many hours in the day.”

Tell that to the management of United Airlines, who are suddenly scratching their heads, wondering how to foster employees with less malleable backbones. Employees who don’t tremble when saying, “maybe we should consider another approach . . .” Good luck with that. The company just spent decades beating their employees into supplication.

When videos such as Dr. Dao’s violent removal from United Flight 3411 go viral, pundits echo the same three conclusions:

1. The corporate culture of the offending company is toxic,
2. There’s too much insistence on sticking to policy,
3. Employees need to be allowed to use their own judgement

If you’re looking for epiphanies, I suggest not reading any blog titled, What United Did Wrong. By now, we know. And among the “fixes,” you’re guaranteed to find employee empowerment, or some derivative of the idea. Hooray! Embedded in an Official Corporate Apology, we can expect a well-crafted sentence that contains the phrase, “our employees are now empowered to . . .” [Interesting note: that phrase – in quotes – received 175,000 search results].

When all else fails, try empowerment. We’re about it hear it like never before: Employee empowerment – or rather, employee empowerment! – get on the bandwagon now if you need a panacea for misguided corporate goals, bad policies, and ambiguous instructions! If only correcting scandals, scams, and commercial transgressions were that easy. Au contraire! Righting wrongs is not like flipping a switch. Or perfunctorily telling employees, “you are now empowered to . . .  Now, let’s get on with business as usual . . .” Alas, empowerment is never one-and-done.

In the context of an enterprise, empowerment, defined as authority or power given to someone to do something, is more a process than a word. For employees, empowerment assumes the ability to disobey immoral orders. I’ll go further: it imparts an obligation to do so.

To understand the complexities of this idea, I’ll revive a 1961 experiment by Yale professor Stanley Milgram, who wanted to learn whether men of various backgrounds would administer an electric shock to a stranger when asked by an authority figure to do so. The experiment resulted in 64% of the participants obeying the order, and 36% refusing. At the time, Milgram’s experiment concluded that there was no factor – demographic, age, occupation, marital status – that predicted whether a given person would be an order follower or resister. Not a comforting insight.

Fast forward to 2017. University of Virginia professor Bidhan L. Parmar conducted a new analysis on Milgram’s data, and he discovered heretofore unknown commonalities within the two groups. According to a February, 2017 article, Remove the Blinders: How to Disobey Immoral Orders, “After reviewing more than 1,000 pages of audio transcripts from the experiment, Parmar noticed subjects who ultimately disobeyed demonstrated distinctive speech patterns. They tested their assumptions, exercised “moral imagination” and speculated out loud about the consequences of their actions. (“Suppose he gets all these wrong, and I get up to a level where it’s going to be extremely painful?” asked one resistor.) The resistors were also quicker to personalize the issue and made more “I” statements. Said one resistor, “I can’t keep doing this to him” while another noted, “I don’t think I want to be part of this any longer.

“On the flip side, subjects who obeyed showed different verbal patterns. They dug into the procedural details of the task, which was to read word pairs and administer a shock if the unseen person could not correctly associate them (typical comments included ‘Do you want me to read these  fast or slow?’ or ‘Do you want me to write down the ones he gets wrong?’) The obeyers kept moral blinders on and read out word pairs, even as the ‘shocked’ person cried out.” (Note: nobody was physically harmed in the experiment. Milgram used actors as subjects, and the cries were recordings that were not created under duress.)

Parmar’s conclusion: “Resistors developed a moral understanding by asking questions, speculating and empathizing with “I” statements. Ultimately, they were able to override the authority’s instructions and make their own judgments.” Creating that outcome requires more – way more – than simply telling employees, “you’re empowered to . . .” Putting Parmar’s discovery into operation takes fortitude, planning, coaching, and – most important – giving employees room to question management’s requests, and to discuss their concerns. When executives cop an attitude that their policies are sacrosanct, when they lose ability to see wisdom from anyone other than peers, you get Dr. Dao bloodied while being dragged from his seat. That, and many, many lesser-known incidents resulting from the same hubris.

“In daily life, most people face choices in which there is a lot of ambiguity and the ‘problem’ isn’t always apparent,” Parmar says. “All of us are embedded in environments where we get conflicting orders, and often it’s not obvious what the right thing to do is.”

To boost the chances for employees to voice conscientious objection, Parmar recommends that managers should:

• Seek out dissenting views on key issues.
• Question routine actions: Ask why something needs to be done (or not) and what purpose it serves.
• Speak up when business imperatives conflict with personal morals.
• Protect those on your team who ask questions.
• Consider data from multiple angles.
• Make ethical reflection and discussion a regular part of team work sessions: How does our strategy affect customers, community, employees, the environment? Who might gain under this plan? Who might suffer?

Disobedience. Today, calling it moral imagination makes it sound more productive. That will keep the C-Suite happy. But it also might be the best liability protection a company can have.