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Institutional Lying

When I asked if she reads the small print, she admitted she does not, not even for the products she sells.

by Bob Kerstetter

Sometimes purpose gets confused with profits. While profits are important, relationships in business provide a higher purpose.

One of the major problems in business today is the way we ruin relationships through institutional lying in sales and service, specifically emphasizing strengths, while covering up weaknesses. The practice has become the norm in marketing to the point where we no longer see it as deception.

Here is a real world example. I was writing a sales document for a security product and was discussing a major feature with the marketing director. The conversation went something like this:

“This really doesn’t solve their problem,” I said. “It’s not addressing their primary security issue.”

“That doesn’t matter,” he replied, “Our job is to make them feel insecure, so they will buy the product. You don’t have to lie. Just don’t mention it.”

I was puzzled. Deception through omission is lying. The marketing director who said this is not really a bad guy. He loves his wife and son, is fun at a party, behaves well on the freeway and, generally, wants to be fair in life. But, somehow, spin in business has become acceptable to him and it has started to effect his relationships with his employees, vendors and customers. He really doesn’t understand this.

The problem is, he is not alone. Discussing this situation in casual conversation with my banker, she said, “Well, it’s really okay. Everyone spins like that. It’s the job of the customer to read the small print and discover the limitations of a product.” When I asked if she reads the small print, she admitted she does not, not even for the products she sells. She just knows the major sales points, not the disadvantages.

This is institutional lying. As we have mostly eliminated institutional racism, we need to work against our current acceptance of institutional lying in business practice. By covering our weaknesses to make ourselves look perfect we limit our customers’ abilities to make intelligent decisions. By telling the truth, we can learn to listen to our customers. This allows us to adjust our products and services to meet their needs, which is the higher purpose of business.

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