<TFM> 1.11 Telling the Truth

<TFM> Number 1.11
About TFM | Archives | Number 1.11 (originally published November 2001)

Telling the Truth

Some things are so basic that they fit in the “everything we learned in kindergarten” category of life. Truth telling lives there. And while white lies may be a necessary lubricant for social discourse, it’s not so with business. Or the Web.

In A Heuristic Evaluation of a World Wide Web Prototype, heuristics developed after an initial site review include this gem:

Don’t lie to the user.

It doesn’t get any cleaner than that. And although the authors report that the group was seeking to minimize 404 “file not found” errors and other forms of missing information … I believe that the precept is equally important when examining policies and marketing copy.

Case Study: Customer Service

In setting up my Palm Vx to sync with my USB-based Powerbook, I ran into a problem. Each time I tried to sync, I found myself on the wrong side of a “failure to connect” error message. Perplexed, I visited the web sites of both Palm and the maker of my USB cable, Keyspan. Both provided “e-mail” tech support.

Whereas the Palm site was a straightforward e-mail type query, the Keyspan site required me to set up yet-another-personal-account. I was initially annoyed … especially when the setup form failed to work in Opera 5.0 and I had to start over again in Navigator. Once I had the account, however, I was impressed that the web site provided issues tracking … had a little AI working on the question to offer possible “packaged” answers to the problem … and asked that the customer cancel the question should the problem be resolved.

At the close of the submission process, Keyspan told me to expect an answer by the end of the next business day:

On the heels of this web promise, I received the following e-mail:

I had clearly been lied to. But it wouldn’t be the last time.

Semantics or untruth?

The Palm answer arrived promptly. After following their suggestion, I discovered the problem and resolved the connection issue. So I decided to cancel the help request to Keyspan, even though I felt that they had not treated me with respect.

After logging in, I found my question … but there was no “cancel” button in sight. Instead, I had to select the counter-intuitive “update question” button. The next page looked about the same to me … until I scrolled to the very bottom. There, hidden, was a checkbox to select for deleting the question.

The lack of a cancel button was not the “lie” … instead, the “lie” is evidenced in the status afforded the problem after I canceled the question. This question or problem was not “solved” because that implies that something Keyspan did resolved the issue.

Instead, the question was cancelled — which has an entirely different connotation, especially when it comes to end-of-month statistical data.

Someone in support will get credit for “helping” this customer, based on that status category. But it will be false data. And it will over-state the effectiveness of this portion of their web site.


Although this really wasn’t a “fight” between Palm and Keyspan, Palm was clearly the winner in the truth (and trust) stakes. The web site and follow-up e-mail were in concert. I was told “look for an answer in 24 hours” … and I got one in a few hours! Another 24 hours afterwards, I received a third mail from Palm — asking if the answer worked and providing a link to a customer service survey form.

The moral: Tell The Truth.

Better yet, make sure all team members agree on acceptable response times before communicating that information to your customers; it will make it eaiser to live in truth-telling mode. The result will be improved customer satisfaction.

Resources and citations