3 sweet lies you should thank a company for

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By Christopher Elliott

As far as rejection letters go, the one I almost never use is unfailingly polite. It’s apologetic. It blames a “system” in which the deck is stacked against you, the consumer, for my failure to accept a case. And it offers several other options, including small-claims court or a credit-card dispute, as possible alternatives.

But a few weeks ago on this site, I confessed that I hate using the rejection letter when someone turns to me for help as a consumer advocate.

Instead, I prefer to leave the matter open. I like to tell customers I’ll “review” their case and get back to them if I can help.

No one likes to be put on hold, but I have good reasons for avoiding a direct and final answer. Even the most cordial rejection letter can incur the wrath of a wronged consumer. Remember, customers are asking me for a hand because they’re unhappy to begin with.

A direct “no”makes customers come totally unhinged

They complain to my editors, threaten my sponsors and send me hate mail. So I try to avoid that by letting them down easy.

In other words, I tell what some have described as a white lie.

By the way, I prefer to think of it as an incomplete answer — but the accusations of an angry minority sure got me to thinking. One of the most-cited surveys about lying in the workplace suggests the practice is rampant, and that employees lie to each other at least as much as they lie to you.

But should a business ever lie to a customer? If so, when? And also, how can you tell you’re being lied to? Here are a few common instances and why the lie isn’t always as bad as it sounds. (Related: Corporations have crafted disingenuous form letters that offer no real solutions for customer service problems.)

“Your business is important to us.”

That may be true at an institutional level, although it’s often more accurate to say that your money is important to the company. The phrase is repeated so often that it becomes a meaningless mantra tacked on to the script someone reads when you call a business or finish a purchase. What’s more, the way it’s said — often totally insincere — makes it sound improbable.

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Why it’s OK: An employee may not believe it, and it may not be completely true, but at some level, your business is really important. Without it, the company would be bankrupt. You’re more than a number. Thanks for the reminder, and the rejection.

“The check is in the mail.”

Lies about refunds are so common in corporate America that customers have come to expect them. When a representative promises to send a check or to refund money to your credit card, what that person really means is that the process is about to start. Expect four to six weeks for it to show up in your account. Two credit-card billing cycles can seem like half an eternity. Don’t expect anyone to give it to you straight.

Why it’s OK: You’re patient, and besides, a written promise of a refund is as good as a refund when it comes to your credit card. Your bank refers to these promises as credit memos, and if the money doesn’t come through, you can literally take the promise to the bank. Look who’s playing games now!

“I’ll transfer you to my supervisor now.”

Call center employees love to do this. Here’s how it works: An unhappy customer won’t get off the phone and demands to speak with that person’s supervisor. So call center employee #1 transfers the angry call to call center employee #2 sitting across from him — not a supervisor — and that employee just reiterates what employee #1 says, making the customer feel utterly powerless. It’s a sick game but I support it.

Why it’s OK: Even if the call were transferred to a “real” supervisor who could fix it, would you trust anything that person says? I wouldn’t. Always, always get it in writing. They’re doing you a favor by playing the supervisor game. You should be grateful.

If you have to ask, “When am I being lied to?”, the answer should be pretty obvious by now. From the time you walk through the door of a store to the moment you finish your transaction, the truth is relative. (Here’s how to win a credit card dispute.)

But a small subset of corporate untruths may actually serve you, the customer, because they illuminate the path to better service.

Which of these is your favorite lie?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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