Wednesday, November 01, 2006

honesty is simple

It is an ethical problem and a practical one. If you can provide more than people expect, should you?

My friend and colleague, Mike (www.episteme.ca) wrote this week about honesty. We expect people to promise more than they can deliver. What we do not expect, and are frequently disturbed by, is the prospect of people delivering more than they promise. It is not precisely honest, particularly when the people in question plan to do more than they promise. And it is unnerving because it leaves us feeling that we owe someone something, that the agreement we made is not the agreement we intended to make.

And yet, we run up against one of the silent problems with being honest. People can only hear what they expect to hear. I often mention the experiments that showed that people from cultures with no graphical representations of faces cannot see photographs as pictures of people. They can see the physical object that is the photo but, even when it is held by the subject of the photo, they cannot recognize what it depicts as a person. We can only perceive connections to our experience.

If I can offer a product or service that is more than you expect, should I advertise that fact? You cannot expect more than you expect, so my claims will not be convincing to you until you have the experience that makes them seem reasonable. If I promise what I can deliver, you will dismiss my claims as hyperbole. If I promise more or less than I can deliver, you will wonder why I am deceptive. Quite rightly, from a certain point of view.

Maybe this is why marketing gurus talk so much about listening to your customers. It's not that you need to listen to produce better products. You need to listen to produce precisely the product that is as good as it can be and still be credible to people before they experience it. That way, they can feel that they are making a good and honorable deal when they buy your product or service.

The reason it is so easy to stretch the truth is that the truth is so much bigger than our experiences and expectations. When we stretch ourselves, we get closer to the edges of the truth.

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