SERVICE AND EXPERIENCE: Lies. All lies—when customers are less than truthful (cont’d)

J. N. Halm

Reasons Customers Lie

It has been argued that because human beings are largely rational beings. Everything we do must have a reason. The argument therefore is that lying is something that is done deliberately to achieve a particular purpose. The reasons customers resort to lies are numerous and the lotives for lying can be quite varied. However, in most situations, customers tell lies as a way of gaining an advantage in the transaction or relationship.

The fact is that anyone who enters into any sort of business transaction does so as to minimise loss and to maximise gains. This twin purpose is what colours everything the customer does. Therefore, when it calls for it, a customer will lie without thinking twice. In this sense, lying is done for mainly selfish reasons. Customers will easily tell self-benefitting lies to gain a personal advantage.

A customer who makes a mistake that will end up causing some financial loss to her will not be too willing to tell the truth. A customer who knows that a particular truthful answer might make her look silly will rather prefer to lie. It is more face saving. A customer who is displeased with a purchased item and decides to return that item might tell a lie just so that his case looks good. If the item worked well for two weeks before malfunctioning, the customer might say the item worked for only a day. A customer who comes in a few minutes after the business has closed for the day will lie that it was the fault of the security man. Such fibs are an almost everyday occurrence and nothing unusual in the business environment.

There are times when a customer will tell a lie just to get ahead in a waiting queue. Sometimes, it is not really an intentional lie but a gross exaggeration. A customer who is made to wait for seven minutes before receiving service will end up complaining that he was made for a quarter of an hour. That cannot be said to be an outright lie. In the customer’s mind, the wait was that long.

Exaggeration, as an expression of lying, can also be of another form of dishonesty. This is the kind that occur when customers over-exaggerate their emotions such as anger or sadness just so that they get things done for them. For instance, a customer who is made to wait for a considerable time can act very angrily so that she gets served sooner rather than later. A customer who desires to be treated specially would not mind faking some kind of pain just to get the necessary attention.

There are also times when a customer will lie just to get back at someone, most probably a customer-facing employee. Customers have been known to tell outright lies just to get a service employee transferred from a particular location as a form of punishment. Sometimes, these lies from customers have even resulted in employees losing their jobs.

Another situation in which customers lie is when they are being asked for their personal information. In a March 2007 edition of the Journal of Consumer Marketing, there was a study that revealed that a quarter of self-reported information provided by customers when filling online forms were not true. The study added that when required to give out some kinds of personal information, customers tend to do a cost-benefit analysis. When customers believe the benefits of providing the personal information does not outweigh the cost, they will easily provide wrong information or withhold the right information.


What the above scenarios prove is that businesses deal with lying customers on a daily basis. The problem with lying in the business-customer context is that it can have serious consequences for both parties. As in every lying situation, when the truth comes to light, it can come with some devastating consequences. In the case of the customer-business relationship, a lie can have disastrous consequences for the customer’s experience. This is especially true when the lie results in serious fraud and criminality.

A customer that is found to be lying, or found to be in a habit of lying, can lose whatever trust the business has for him or her. Such a customer would lose respect with the said business. In the same way that a customer will lose trust for a business that tells a lie, a business would also lose trust for a lying customer. When it is shattered, trust—like the proverbial glass—will take a lot of hard work for it to be restored to its original state.

One of the most important recent works that has been done on the issue of lies from customers was published in the November 2021 edition of the Journal of Business Research. Titled, “Consumer lying behavior in service encounters”, the study really took an in-depth look at the concept of lying. The study went beyond just the characteristics of lying or the various by which lying occurs. It also considered the motives and consequences of lying by customers in service encounters. The research involved two separate studies of almost 3,000 US consumers. The researchers first defined what constituted lying and then asked the participants if they had ever lied in a service encounter before. These lies were then analysed in depth and the results were quite revealing.

One of the paradoxes of customers lying is that it can improve the customer’s experience. Strange as it might sound, it has been found that in cases where telling the truth might not get the customer what he wants, a lie could get the customer the desired outcome. For instance, a customer who is late for a very important appointment can resort to a lie so as not to miss that appointment. If that customer finally gets to the appointment, he will leave that meeting feeling good because he had achieved his goal of making it to the appointment. However, that happiness was achieved by lying. Therefore by lying, the customer is left more satisfied with the service experience than if he had told the truth.

In another vein, however, a customer who lies to a service employee may feel bad afterwards. The shame of having to lie can really become a bother for the customer. This might even result in the customer finding it difficult to go back to the same business. Eventually, the customer might stop doing business with that entity. That initial lie would have led to a reduction in customer loyalty or at worst, a loss of the customer’s business.

Another “positive” consequence of customer lying on the customer’s experience is that it can boost the confidence of the customer-handling employee. For instance, when a service employee asks a customer what the customer thought of a service given, it is possible the customer might lie just so as not to embarrass the employee. People are generally not very mean and so will not go out of their way to hurt another’s feelings. A customer might therefore tell a white lie and give the employee an undeserved compliment. That employee who believes the customer’s “lie” will feel good and endear the customer to the one. In essence, the employee will like that customer more and this will enhance the relationship. However that stronger bond that will eventually develop between the customer and the employee would have been based on a lie told by the customer.

In Conclusion….

From the preceding “positive” consequences and many others, customers will continue to lie their way around as they interact with businesses. The matter that must be a concern for every business, then, is not whether your customers will lie to have their way. It has been established that they will, at one time or another. The important issue for businesses, therefore, is what a business is to do when it knows a customer is lying. How is a business supposed to handle the issue of lying by its customers?

Should you call out a lying customer in public so as to serve as a deterrent to other customers? Or would you let the matter slide just so as not to embarrass the customer? Will you stop doing business with a customer who tell a “little white lie”? These are ethical questions that have no right or wrong answer. Every organisation must decide for itself and every particular situation must dictate the response of the organisation.

As businesses seek to provide customers with the very best of service and experience, the need to know what customers really want will continue to increase in importance. However, to know what customers really want requires talking to customers and asking them what they want. This is when the need for honesty from customers becomes very critical. Whether via face-to-face surveys on the shop floor or by online reviews, the need to know what is in the customers mind is paramount to the success of the organisation.

How is a business to know what a customer really wants, if the customer is lying? This is why lies told by customers are not in the interest of the business but also not in the interest of the customer. White lies or not, the lie hides the truth the organisation badly needs to hear. Even if the customer’s reason for lying is so as not to hurt the feelings of the customer service employee, the situation helps no one. If the performance is not the very best, but the customer says it is the best, that customer is not helping the organisation do a better job next time. This also means that the customer will not get the very best from the organisation in question. In short, when lies are told, nobody really wins. That is not an untruth.


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