An excerpt from

Deceit and Candor

Those of you who habitually leaf through these pages to see how long the sections are will have noticed that this section on deceit and candor is a tad longer than the one above on respect. That's because I know that respect comes naturally to all you gentle souls. I'm going to have to spend some time teaching you how to deftly blend deceit and candor; how to swirl together the white lie and the half-truth.

But why deceive? Because, as you know, your company is One Big Happy Family. Do Big Happy Family members go blabbing about how their brothers and sisters scratch their butts when they watch TV.? Of course not. When asked about it, they fib. One of your jobs is to hide your company's butt-scratching.

It's usually not hard to remember to keep your mouth shut when you first start dealing with a client. That's a natural tendency with any new person you meet. But later, as you get to know and like them, you'll feel yourself wanting to come clean, perhaps, about some little thing the company did that might not have been in the client's best interest. Or you might want to give them that little extra info that can make their life easier. That's what happened to a guy I'll call Dave when he was working on Wall Street right out of grad school:

    This client was a portfolio manager and wanted an update on a company that we had underwritten a security offering for, one he had invested in. And I gave him more detail than I should have. It didn't affect the market or the company or his investment in it, but it was something that should have not been passed on. I did, without even knowing it, really.

Dave got the word from his boss that this release of pure candor was too powerful, even though there was no harm done. The episode colored his boss's view so much that Dave thinks it stopped him from rising further in the company. It all worked out, though, because Dave blew off Wall Street and is now happily elsewhere. But looking back, he realized just how delicate the candor/deceit mixture was, and that nobody had given him the recipe:

    I don't know where the blame really falls in that situation; if it was on the company for not spelling out where that boundary is, or if it was on me for not knowing where it was, or if it was on by boss for knowing I was not the one who should have been talking to the client. You can point a lot of fingers, but it comes down to a person going into a company and deciding to assess what they should or shouldn't be doing. They should clarify with their boss or even their coworkers before they do something that they're not sure about.

The rule, then, is don't tell more about anything, even if it seems harmless, even if you've known the client for months and you're sure she wouldn't tell a soul.

At the same time, if you don't seem candid with your client, she'll assume you're hiding something, and that it must be bad. For your client to have trust in you, you've got to give them information. So you've got to seem wonderfully candid and truthful and informative and yet conceal certain things.

Seem impossible? Well, it's one of those "challenges" they talk about in the bizworld. It's often referred to as "thinking on your feet" as in "keep them on the floor so they're not suddenly tickling your tonsils."

The Shell Game, or, When the Mouth is Quicker than the Ear

To help you assess what you should and shouldn't be telling, try this: First think of the information you have not as truth and lies but as information with three different degrees of sensitivity:

  • Stuff I will tell completely without hesitation because it's part of the job.

  • Stuff a client has to press me to get. When I give it, the client will think of it as a favor or as something I reveal reluctantly.

  • Stuff I will not tell, even if they put me in a small room with bad coffee and the muzak version of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

Now, in a dramatic use of metaphor, I suggest you imagine that you've set up a small white magician's table with three shells on it. Under the three shells are the three kinds of info. Across from you sits the client, wondering which shell has what he wants underneath.

You, of course, always start by uncovering Shell Number 1, the information you want to give. A well-behaved client will accept it, and you can have a nice chat. No prestidigitation necessary.

But this often isn't the scenario. Instead, you'll get a client who'll keep saying, "Oh, yeah? Well what's under that shell over there?" That's when you become Manipulo the Magnificent. Your job is to keep shifting and rearranging the shells so that the client always picks the one with the information you want to give, and never picks the one with the deep dark secrets.

Let's take a real life example so you can get an idea of how this works. Here's the set up. Let's say a Mr. Denzkogger is calling trying to find out why an order is late. During his call you find the order sitting on the floor by the trash can when you thought you'd turned it in weeks ago. The reason it even fell off your desk in the first place is because your company has a rule that says orders must be submitted no more than three weeks before the needed delivery date. This rule bugs the hell out of everybody, because people have to keep the orders in their offices for weeks, where they're likely to get lost, just as Mr. Denzkogger's did.

Think about all the information you have about this situation, divide it up, and put it under the shells. Here, I'll do it for you:

    Shell Number 1: Info I will freely give: When the order was placed. Any information on the order. The usual time the company takes to process an order. What the company usually does to correct a late delivery.

    Shell Number 2: Info I'd rather not give, but will if I have to: That you lost the order and forgot to turn it in. (You may think you're trying to keep this from Mr. Denzkogger just because you're a skin-saving weasel, but there's more too it than that. If you look bad, your company looks bad.) That you will, if you have to, beg Jerry in shipping to get the shipment delivered, and fast. (You're probably going to do this anyway, but you'd rather not have to admit this to Mr. Denzkogger.)

    Shell Number 3: Information I won't give: That the company's ordering system sucks, and that this happens all the time.

Now, let's look at the wrong and the right way to talk to Mr. Denzkogger:

The Wrong Way

Denzkogger: "Where the hell are my two dozen Ultra-Glide No Stik Pizza Paddles? I ordered them seven weeks ago!"

You: "Well, sir, the company's ordering system sucks and this happens all the time."

Now Mr. Denzkogger is wondering why he is doing business with your company at all, and your boss will shortly be wondering why you work there. This is counter-productive.

The Right Way

Denzkogger: "Where the hell are my two dozen Ultra-Glide No Stik Pizza Paddles? I ordered them seven weeks ago!"

You: "You haven't received that order? I'll check it out right away. What's the order number?"

Denzkogger: "19284564436384756328-EX-3954748587908664430384-9"

You: "Just a moment, sir, while I bring that up on our computer screen."

After rummaging through your desk, your drawers, your files, and yelling down the hall, you finally find the order on the floor.

You: "I have your order right here, sir. That was an order for 24 Ultra-Glides, placed on May 15th."

Denzkogger: "That's right."

You: "Our average delivery time is three weeks, Mr. Denzkogger. This really shouldn't have taken this long. I can understand that you're upset."

Denzkogger: "You're damn right."

You: "I'll look into it and call you back within the hour."

So far you've just revealed what was in Shell Number 1. You then take the order to Jerry in shipping and beg. Jerry says the best he can do is two weeks. You get back on the phone knowing you can't offer this to Denzkogger without an explanation, so you decide to uncover Shell Number 2.

You: "Mr. Denzkogger, I've found the problem. Your order was misfiled and wasn't sent to the shipping department. I'm terribly sorry. This time I will put it through personally and we can have your Glides out to you in two weeks."

Notice the passive construction, "Your order was misplaced." Notice, too, the switch to the active construction, "This time I will put it through personally." Makes it sound like you had nothing to do with the screw up, but will have everything to do with the fix. And you thought English composition was a waste of time.

Denzkogger: "Two weeks! What's that matter with your outfit! Haven't you guys got your ordering system straightened out yet? Jackson over there told me it was screwed up, but this is unbelievable. I know some of your other clients and they tell me this happens all the time!"

Whoa. Denzkogger's fingers hover over Shell Number 3, threatening to tear away the thin veil of competence to reveal a seething swamp of chaos. Now is the time to breath deeply, and remember that you do not need to lift up that shell. With a quick flick of the wrist, you twist the shells, and open up Shell 2 again.

You: "I'm very sorry about all this Mr. Denzkogger, and as I said, I will personally follow-up on your order and make sure it gets to you no later than July 17."

Same info rephrased. Notice the added specifics: "No later than July 17." Specifics make things sound more concrete.

The more you get in the habit of thinking in these shells, the less often you'll get stuck saying things you didn't want to say.

If all else fails, remember the all-purpose bail-out: "I'll have to check with my boss on that," or "I'm not that familiar with our company's policy on releasing that kind of information, but I'll check and get back with you."

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Garrett Soden