Never deceive your customers. It will always come back to haunt you. If you’re a person of integrity, the fact that it’s wrong should be all the reason you need. But even if you aren’t, in an age where everyone’s a journalist and bad news travels much faster than good news, it’s only a matter of time before the word spreads and your reputation takes a hit. How much of a hit depends on what kind of reputation you had to begin with, but the bigger they are, the harder they fall—and you deserve it.

Transparency should rule

In this modern era, transparency is a good rule to live by. In fact, it’s one of our house rules. We encourage our clients to embrace transparency and we strive to model it for them. I’ve never come across a situation where it wasn’t or couldn’t be used successfully.

We’ve all had a vendor feed us a line that just doesn’t seem to add up. Suddenly, we question everything else because they’ve trashed their credibility. One of my personal favorites is when people use the word “honestly” when they’re trying to sell me something, as in “Well, to be honest with you…”

What? By acknowledging that they’re being honest about one specific point, they’re also implying that everything else they’ve said hasn’t been so straightforward. Even if that’s not what they meant to say, it’s what they communicated. They’ve given me the impression that they aren’t totally genuine unless they tell me they are.

Aspergillus flavus in the fine print

Not long ago, I got a new credit card from my bank. I was already there and it was the convenient choice. The card reward was 1% cash back. Who wouldn’t take free money?

When I signed up, either I wasn’t told or I missed that there would be a maximum cap on my cash back. After using the card for six months, I noticed the fine print while at the bank one day: the maximum reward was $15.00 per quarter, or about enough for my wife and I to have a nice Italian dinner at Fazoli’s.

I missed getting 1% back for a lot of purchases because I went past the cap. I felt tricked. My bank was keeping the money I thought they had promised me.

It’s like being in the fridge getting some leftovers, only to find that there’s a nasty Aspergillis flavus mold on your dinner when you open the lid. If you’d used a transparent container or Saran wrap, you would have seen it growing a long time ago, but right now it’s not a very fun surprise.

Amazon Prime customers find the mold

Let me give you another example. Here’s an interesting read on Amazon’s performance as a company with a focus on their Amazon Prime service. If you aren’t familiar, for $79 a year, Amazon Prime members pay $3.99 for overnight shipping on anything, or they get free two-day shipping if they can wait that long.

After they’d been offering the overnight shipping bargain for a while, Amazon realized that they were losing some serious cash. My favorite quote of the article is from customer Perry Denton. As an Amazon Prime member, he ordered a new lawnmower for next-day delivery. In his words: “I felt kind of guilty, but I really needed a lawnmower.”

Absolutely priceless. I’d love to meet that guy. He felt guilty about getting an amazing deal knowing that there was no way Amazon could be making money off of it. But in the end, he figured that Amazon knew exactly what they were doing, and as long as they offered it he may as well take advantage of it.

Predictably, Amazon changed the overnight shipping policy so that the cost increased based on the product’s weight. It’s a reasonable change—but their problem was in how they handled it: they didn’t tell their customers. They weren’t transparent. They had promised overnight shipping for $3.99 for Amazon Prime customers, and when they removed it, their customers found out the hard way.

There’s nothing wrong with expecting customers to pay a reasonable cost for services rendered. If a customer doesn’t agree, that’s the type of customer that you want your competitors to have—so let them go! No one would have faulted Amazon for some fine print saying that additional charges may apply to abnormally heavy items. When they created the Amazon Prime concept, they should have thought about lawnmowers.

But to change a core benefit of a membership without telling the members is deceptive. All they needed to do was to send a well-crafted email to their members explaining the change and the reasons behind it, and then allow people to cancel their membership for a pro-rated refund if they’re dissatisfied with the new terms. Those customers who regularly buy lawnmowers from Amazon might not be happy with the change, but at least they can’t tell all of their friends that they were lied to.

But since Amazon’s change was anything but transparent, now their public relations department has to fight to maintain the company’s good reputation. At least they’ll earn their paycheck this month.

Never, ever, ever deceive your customers. Your credibility and integrity are too important!