Here’s a slightly updated version of a classic article we first ran on Feb. 18, 2013.
Presidents’ Day, which falls between the birthdays of two of our nation’s most revered leaders — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — is today. And as every school-aged kid knows, both men are remembered for their honesty. (Okay, little George and the cherry tree might be more legend than fact, but it does indicate the extent to which our culture views truthfulness as a virtue.) The lip service we pay to honesty, even as we fudge the truth in our day-to-day lives, raises a question: Would Washington and Lincoln make it in today’s business world?
I believe the answer is yes. If they showed up in 2013 and truly lived up to their reputations, they would find themselves in huge demand. People crave honesty and transparency, and it’s mostly because they’re such rare qualities these days.
Do a little soul-searching. You might be shocked at the number of white lies, exaggerations, misdirections, and lies of omission you’re guilty of. For example: I’m not going to meet my deadline so I’ll tell him I’m sick to buy myself a couple more days. Or, This is probably not the best vendor for this particular client, but since she (the vendor) sends us a lot of business, I’m going to recommend her anyway.
The occasional lie of omission, or even commission, may not reflect any ill intent toward your clients. But in the long run, even small dishonesties will muddy your relationship and ultimately keep your business from being all it can be.
(Related: Dishonesty Is for Losers)
We can usually rationalize our small or even large dishonesties. But when we examine them, we can see that our lies, little or big, are told to benefit ourselves — to make more money, to cover up mistakes, or to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.
Making the decision to always put your clients first instead — which means telling them the truth and letting the chips fall — will transform your business. It may not happen overnight, but it will over time as you gain a reputation for transparency and trustworthiness. And it will change your life. Just ask Abraham Lincoln, who “lost” a lot of money during his lawyer career because he didn’t like to charge exorbitant amounts, and encouraged clients to settle out of court when it was in their best interests, even though he didn’t get paid!
My wife, Joann, and I built our thriving business, Those Callaways, after a late-in-life entry into the world of real estate. Since then, we have lived through a bubble and survived a horrible economic downturn — and managed to prosper through both, while many of our fellow realtors never recovered. We credit our “Clients First” philosophy as our magic bullet, and never, ever telling a lie is part of that.
Early on in our careers as realtors, we faced a not-uncommon dilemma: Our sellers, the Smiths, needed to sell their home soon so they could move. Our buyers, the Browns, had fallen in love with the Smiths’ house. Perfect, right? Not really. It turned out the Browns’ offer was lower than what the Smiths were asking, but it still stretched their budget. Should we tell each family what they wanted to hear (and guarantee ourselves a commission)…or should we do the right thing?
JoAnn and I decided to tell each party the truth: This deal really wasn’t in either of their best interests, even though it was in ours. Like a fairy tale, we soon found the Smiths a buyer willing to pay their asking price, and we found the Browns a more affordable home they loved even more. The way we did business was forever changed. Whatever happened, we knew we had to always put the client first — even though the truth sometimes hurts, and a fairy-tale ending isn’t always guaranteed.
Whether in the days of Washington and Lincoln or right now, telling the truth is not rocket science. Honesty really is the best policy in business and in life. I give seven solid reasons why:
1. It’s why you exist.
If you’re in business, you provide either a good or a service that’s aimed at making the consumer’s life easier, better, fuller, etc. In other words, your raison d’être comes down to helping other people. When you think about your job description in those terms, you’ll have to admit that while it may not always be comfortable, telling the truth is what’s in the client’s best interest.
You can’t truly help someone if you aren’t being honest! Sure, you can usually rationalize a blurred line or a white lie. But on whose behalf are you fudging the truth? Even if it’s for the client, broken rules and skipped steps—if and when they come to light—won’t be doing him any favors. And if you’re trying to skirt the truth to make your own life easier, beware: You’re on a very slippery slope.
2. Truth breeds trust.
It’s simple: When the customer knows he can expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth from you, he’ll trust you. And especially in the wake of so many business scandals (Bear Stearns, JPMorgan Chase, and even Bernie Madoff spring to mind), trust isn’t something you’ll automatically get from a client. You’ll have to earn it. And once you have done so, you’ll most likely have a client for life.
Trust is one of the relatively few remaining things that no amount of money can buy. It’s also something that’s invaluable once you have it. While I’m no business historian, I would venture to say that dishonesty, cover-ups, and stretching the truth played a large role in the collapses of most now-defunct companies. What would the current business climate look like today if all of those organizations had prized earning long-term trust over earning short-term profits?