Liars Go Shopping with Pants on Fire

Discussion
Sep 24, 2012

Sorry Virginia, people sometimes lie. And, at least according to a study from the University of Sydney, retailers should consider letting shoppers who lie during a service encounter get away with it.

The researchers said existing research shows us that people tell an average of one to two lies per day, and their study, to be published in the October issue of Journal of Consumer Research, found that participants were more ready to lie in a business encounter than generally assumed for a material award. Complicating matters further, the study found that liars are more pleased than truth-tellers with the shopping experience if the lie leads to a successful outcome and more disappointed with a negative outcome.

In a series of lab experiments, participants either told the truth or lied during conversations with service providers in order to pursue a material reward. In one experiment, participants responded to a number of questions that resulted in their ineligibility for a prize. After being told they were ineligible, the participants were given a chance to lie to the study administrator in order to acquire the prize. Around 50 percent of participants were prepared to lie.

But the results also showed that liars reported "more extreme evaluations" of the outcomes than truth tellers with their hopes rising higher on a positive outcome.

"Although we might expect that a positive outcome would be ‘tainted’ for liars as they would feel guilty about their actions, liars are significantly more satisfied than truth tellers," wrote professors Christina Anthony and Elizabeth Cowley, in a statement from the University of Sydney.

The authors believe the reason is that lying is hard work.

"Because liars are busy lying, they have fewer mental resources available for other tasks. One such important task involves using feedback from the listener to update one’s expectations about how the conversation is progressing," the authors wrote. "Consequently, liars are more surprised by the final outcome than truth tellers, which, in turn, results in a stronger reaction to it."

The study first concludes that retailers should perhaps not over-zealously pursue deceptive consumers because the staff may end up accusing some truth-tellers, leaving them "feeling overly scrutinized and angry."

But the more complicated reason is that letting people periodically get away with lies in a business encounter increases the consumer’s satisfaction level and enhances goodwill. Perhaps more critically, being caught in a lie greatly diminishes that consumer’s satisfaction levels. Said Prof. Anthony, "Because a successful lie may increase satisfaction with a transaction, if the marketer does not have too much to lose it may be wise to let the consumer get away with the lie."

How should retail staff be taught to pursue and deal with shoppers who are possibly lying in a service situation? How open should retailers be to letting shoppers get away with lying?

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17 Comments on "Liars Go Shopping with Pants on Fire"


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Alison Chaltas
Guest
Alison Chaltas
9 years 8 months ago

There is nothing to be gained from calling a customer a liar — even if they are. The risk of mistaking a truth teller for a liar is too great, and onlooker shoppers may become upset and frustrated with the customer service team for creating an unpleasant and slower retail experience. There aren’t enough labor hours to waste time on this one.

To quote the great Stew Leonard:
Rule #1: The customer is always right.
Rule #2: Read rule #1!

Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

Is it just me or does the line, “liars are busy lying, they have fewer mental resources available for other tasks” make customers/liars sound like they are a Timex computer running off a floppy disk?

How is any of this, if it can be believed as universal, helpful to anyone in retail sales? Are we going to have Sybil the Soothsayer consulting businesses?

Anytime you incent a reward, remove barriers and generally let people get their way — if they bend the truth- they will. Human nature is greedy; not sure this is surprising news.

Charlie Moro
Guest
Charlie Moro
9 years 8 months ago

You have to wonder a little about how funding goes into research on subjects like this. Lying could be in the eyes of the beholder. Faced with open faced, broad faced lies from a customer can really play to the retailers advantage. In the end, more than likely the associate knows the customer is lying and if the customer gets some resolution to a problem they felt they were not going to be able to get otherwise, it may make them more loyal in the long run. Seems like a lot of work for customer service staff to not only resolve issues for mutual benefit, but to also be the truth police.

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

The biggest area for retailers is merchandise returns. Retailers with an open policy have encountered a customer subset that returns just about anything. These retailers have also encountered returns for merchandise they don’t or did not sell.

Three dimensions should be considered. First is the value of the item. Low value items simply will cost more to process than they are worth. Higher value items require some supplier support. Second is the customer’s value to the retailer. From the frequent shopper program one can easily be determined if this is a good or occasional customer. Good customers should always be taken care of, even if it is outside the rules. Third is the customer’s frequency for returning. This also could be tracked by the frequent shopper program. A customer who frequently returns merchandise is not a profitable customer and the retailer should not encourage this behavior.

Ben Sprecher
Guest
Ben Sprecher
9 years 8 months ago
Any customer service interaction should be thought through backwards: what is the ultimate goal of the interaction, and what steps should the staff take to get there? The goal of almost all customer interactions is to leave the customer happy and willing to come back to your store again and spend more money. So, unless a customer is driving significant losses through their lying (either in one very large transaction or as a pattern over time), your staff should just let it slide. Now, if the transaction is a huge one — say a customer trying to return a giant flat screen TV with no receipt or other evidence of purchase and no box — then it is worth working with the customer to confirm they are on the up and up. And if a customer shows a pattern of abusive behavior over time (as tracked through a loyalty program) it may be worth firing the customer. But generally speaking, trust the customer, treat them well, and the resulting goodwill will more than pay back… Read more »
George Anderson
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

This research made me think of the Nordstrom/car tire return story.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

Bottom line, “The Customer is always right.” When I was a store manager years ago, I knew when my customers were lying to me to get something for nothing. More often than not, these people were weekly shoppers who spent thousands of dollars per year at my store. If they wanted a refund for a $20 roast that they ate, I gave it to them. It’s small potatoes in the grander scheme of things. Don’t lose a regular customer over a dime. Swallow your pride.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
9 years 8 months ago

It sounds great to say “the customer is always right,” but there are exceptions. I would recommend the old Reagan mantra of “trust but verify.” Especially for retailers selling higher end items, the damage that serial returners and liars can cause can be serious. May as well send those “extreme problem” customers over to retailers who take anything back, with no excuses, and let them absorb the continual losses.

Kate Blake
Guest
Kate Blake
9 years 8 months ago

If the lie doesn’t impede the sale or exchange, you don’t call them out. The goal is to keep things moving; because if you spend the time “schooling” this customer, the other customers who hear you will get the impression you’d rather argue than serve.

Matthew Keylock
Guest
Matthew Keylock
9 years 8 months ago

There are solutions available in merchandise returns that provide sophisticated data-based approaches to identify fraud (regardless of whether the customer has lied or not).

These can be set according to individual retailer preferences and can identify loyal/valuable shoppers from those who may be fraudsters. Some even provide a service to engage the customer directly and so allow associates and other customers to avoid a potentially confrontational event.

Dealing with persistent fraud is important and can be a significant issue at some retailers. Being able to defend a position using your data makes for a less subjective dialogue.

Return events also represent a great opportunity to strengthen your engagement with new or great customers, so making this experience smart and rewarding can help grow loyalty.

Mark Burr
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

“In a series of lab experiments….”

Enough said.

Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
9 years 8 months ago

I always recommend deferring to the customer — until/unless it becomes clear that it’s a big (not small) financial problem. And, in reality, I’ve never seen it get to that point. By and large, most people are honest and honestly trying to obtain what they thought they were going to get (even if they were mistaken in that understanding).

Yet there are a few who make a business out of taking advantage of a company’s need to support the majority of the customers well — and that small number leave a sour taste.

Fortunately, we can focus on the overall and know that the number taking advantage of the situation is quite small.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

I agree with Allison and our friend Stew Leonard. Nothing is gained from a confrontation except you lose a customer who will bad mouth you to friends. And there is no one there to say he is wrong. So the loser will always be the retailer.

Stew Leonard built an empire on his two rules.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
9 years 8 months ago

The article is pretty much spot on. Accusing customers of lying will drive away both truth tellers and liars (which one you think there are more of says a lot about your general outlook on humanity). Retailers should create an internal formula that assumes a certain percentage of inflation in customer service ratings. If top colleges can deal with students getting inflated grades, retailers can handle this.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

I have to agree with Bob here: I don’t see how these hypothetical situations really help anyone; retailers generally can’t tell if info they’re given is false — how could they? If they already knew the answer they wouldn’t need to ask the question, but they’re certainly aware of the possibility, and I don’t think putting a probability on this likelihood accomplishes anything.

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
9 years 8 months ago

It is unfortunate that this story is even interesting. If your business model does not allow for the small percentage of consumers who lie in a material way, then get out of the business. “Trust but verify?” I don’t think so. Trust with customers means trust always.

Christopher P. Ramey
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

Confrontation with a customer (with the exception of stealing) is never a good idea. It’s our job to serve the customer; they own their own lives. Retailers need to worry about the 98% of their customers who make them wealthy rather than the 2% who may take advantage by not be telling the truth.

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