Consumer lies in the service encounter

Hannah Snyder

More than nine out of ten consumers admit that they have been lying during a service encounter. Why do we lie and what are the implications for consumers and businesses?

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Consumer behaviour

Imagine a customer that has broken his new phone, a patient that is asked about how much alcohol she drinks or a customer at the hairdresser that does not particularly like their new haircut. Will these consumers speak the truth or will they lie?

If the consumer chooses to lie it can have major implications both for the businesses but also for the consumer.

Lying is a common aspect of all social relationships and is a significant part of our everyday life. The marketplace is not any different; it is well established in research that consumers do not always tell the truth. But what does this mean for businesses?

Studying consumer lying

While both the business community and researchers have established that consumer lying is a problem with major consequences both for customers and for firms the debate about lying and other deviant consumers’ behaviors have often preceded data on the topic.

Therefore, we do not know the answers to basic questions such as how often, why, when and what customers lie about.

This was the focus on a recent research project that is a collaboration between BI, Lars Witell at Linköping University, Anders Gustafsson at Karlstad University and Janet McColl-Kennedy at The University of Queensland. Using a three-study, multimethod design, with a sample of 2060 consumers, this research investigates self -reported consumer lies in various contexts and situation.

On a more general level, we found that about 60 % of all customers admitted that they had lied during a service encounter when being asked directly. However, when presented with different examples or scenarios of customer lies, an astonishing 92 % admitted that they had engaged in such behavior at least one time.

This shows that consumer lying behavior is a recurrent theme in service encounters and that frontline employees need to deal with consumer lies on a daily basis

What do consumers lie about?

It seems that customers lie in all type of situations. Common context for consumer lying where retail stores, restaurants, medical services and other professional services such as financial or It-services.

Content of the lies included harmless “white lies” such as stating that you were satisfied with your meal when you in fact were not, changing the reason you where late to your driving lesson, exaggerating to the salesperson how often you run when buying new running shoes, omitting some relevant information on your regular health checkup to fabricating the reason why you are returning a product or lying about your age to get a cheaper ticket to a concert.

Often these lies where told to benefit yourself with the motive of gaining some reward, presenting your self in a more flattering way or avoid awkward situations or interactions with service employees.

However, consumers also lied to spare the feelings of the service employee or to make them feel better. The study also revealed that lying can have both emotional (such as getting angry or happy), behavioral (such as changing service provider) and financial effects for the customers (such as gaining some monetary value).

The impact of consumer lies on businesses

All in all, these results reveal some major implications for businesses.

First, white lies told by the customer often hide the fact that that the consumer does not like the meal at a restaurant or the service of a frontline employee.

In a short-term perspective, this is beneficial since the consumer does not complain or have to have their meal replaced. In fact, consumers might even give a higher amount or tip if they have lied during the service encounter. For the customer, they benefit from avoiding an awkward situation or unwanted conflict. However, in a long-term perspective this might hide a real problem that might impact satisfaction and results in lost customers.

In addition, customers often lie to benefit themselves, economically or emotionally when for example returning a product or meeting with a doctor. These lies might have substantial financial impact on businesses as they might favor dishonest claims but they can also result in providing the wrong service or product.

Last, consumers often lie to avoid interaction with the service provider. This is often to avoid to give service providers the opportunity to talk them into for example a subscription that they do not want.

While this might result in lost sales for the service provider, it is also important to note that these customers are among the most satisfied and loyal. Therefore, giving the customer the chance to avoid interaction might not be such a bad idea after all.

This article is published in BI Marketing Magazine 2018. BI Marketing Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Marketing at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 2. July 2018

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