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Does honesty in business pay off?

My wife and I ordered breakfast in a busy diner and the waitress returned the omelets we had ordered, except my wife soon discovered that hers had the wrong kind of cheese. Our waitress had already left our table, and was extremely busy. Linda and I were both very hungry, so she ate what she had been given, even though it was not what she wanted. So, after all of that, why did we still decide to give the waitress the same tip we usually would?

It all had to do with what happened next. When the waitress came back to check on us, my wife let her know that she had eaten the omelet, but that the kitchen had sent out American cheese instead of cheddar. The waitress immediately apologized, saying that she had erroneously told the kitchen to use American cheese and that it was all her fault, not the kitchen’s.

That waitress had every opportunity to blame the kitchen but didn’t go there. Instead, she ‘fessed up. We really respected that.

Bleu cheese omelette and hash browns

Image by Premshree Pillai via Flickr

In online marketing, that kind of honesty is even more important than in the face-to-face world. Why? Because people understand things in the face-to-face world based on more than what you do or say. They can tell if you are upset even if you don’t say you are sorry. An “Oh, no!” in the right tone of voice speaks volumes. Customers can see your body language and your facial expression. Online, they get none of that.

So, when an online customer complaint is greeted with silence, or when a perfunctory cut-and-paste answer is given, it makes a big impression. That kind of response screams, “We don’t care about our customers.” Online, people tend to assume the worst unless you go out of your way to make sure you are clear—think about the last time you had an e-mail misinterpreted just because the wording wasn’t quite right. That kind of misinterpretation happens much more online than in person.

So, it’s not enough to listen to what customers say. You must actively engage and respond to them, and do it in a way that clearly communicates that you care.

So ask yourself what you do when you’ve made a mistake with your customers. Do you admit your error and try to make it right? Or do you blame the kitchen?

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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