Would George and ‘Honest Abe’ Make It in Today’s Business World?

Sometimes it seems the business world thrives on “harmless” small fibs, misdirections and lies of omission
by Joseph Callaway

shutterstock_185708303Presidents’ Day, which falls between the birthdays of two of our nation’s most revered leaders — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — is coming up on Monday, February 16. And as every school-aged kid knows, both men are remembered for their honesty. (OK, “little George and the cherry tree” might be more legend than fact, but it does indicate the extent to which our culture views truthfulness as a virtue.) This “lip service” we pay to honesty, even as we fudge the truth in our day-to-day lives, raises a question: Would Washington and Lincoln make it in today’s business world?

I believe the answer is yes. If they showed up in 2015 and truly lived up to their reputation, they would find themselves in huge demand. People really, really crave honesty and transparency, and it’s mostly because they’re such rare qualities these days.

Do a little soul-searching. You might be shocked at the number of white lies, exaggerations, misdirections and lies of omission you’re guilty of. For example: I’m not going to meet my deadline so I’ll tell him I’m sick to buy myself a couple more days. Or, This is probably not the best vendor for this particular client, but since she (the vendor) sends us a lot of business, I’m going to recommend her anyway.

The occasional lie of omission, or even commission, may not reflect any ill intent toward your clients. But in the long run, even small dishonesties will muddy your relationship and ultimately keep your business from being all it can be. We can usually rationalize our small or even large dishonesties, but when we examine them, we can see that our lies, little or big, are told to benefit ourselves — to make more money, to cover up mistakes or to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Making the decision to always put your clients first instead — which means telling them the truth and letting the chips fall where they may — will transform your business. It may not happen overnight, but it will over time as you gain a reputation for transparency and trustworthiness. And it will change your life. Just ask Abraham Lincoln, who “lost” a lot of money during his law career because he didn’t like to charge exorbitant amounts, and encouraged clients to settle out of court when it was in their best interests — even though he didn’t get paid!

We’ve experienced this first-hand. My wife and I have built a thriving business after a late-in-life entry into the world of real estate. We lived through a bubble and survived a horrible economic downturn, and managed to prosper through both while many fellow realtors never recovered. We believe our “Clients First” philosophy is our magic bullet — and never, ever telling a lie is part of that.

Early in our careers as realtors, we faced a not-uncommon dilemma: Our sellers, the Smiths, needed to sell their home soon so they could move. Our buyers, the Browns, had fallen in love with the Smiths’ house. Perfect, right? Not really. It turned out the Browns’ offer was lower than what the Smiths were asking, but it still stretched their budget. Should we tell each family what they wanted to hear (and guarantee ourselves a commission) or should we do the right thing?

We decided to tell each party the truth: This deal really wasn’t in either of their best interest, even though it was in ours. Like a fairy tale, we soon found the Smiths a buyer willing to pay their asking price, and we found the Browns a more affordable home they loved even more. The way we did business was forever changed. Whatever happened, we knew we had to always put the client first — even though the truth sometimes hurts, and a fairy-tale ending isn’t always guaranteed.

Sticking with the truth isn’t always easy — it’s something you have to dare to do. Why else are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln revered for doing so? But remember, everything has an impact — and the price of not trusting the truth is always more expensive than the alternative.

Honesty Really Is the Best Policy in Business and in Life

Whether in the days of Washington and Lincoln or right now, telling the truth is not rocket science.

It’s why you exist. If you’re in business, you provide either a good or a service that’s aimed at making the consumer’s life easier, better, fuller, etc. In other words, your raison d’être comes down to helping other people. When you think about your job description in those terms, you’ll have to admit that, while it may not always be comfortable, telling the truth is what’s in the client’s best interest.

Truth breeds trust. It’s simple: When the customer knows he can expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth from you, he’ll trust you. In the wake of so many business scandals, trust isn’t something you’ll automatically get from a client, so you’ll have to earn it. But once you have done so, you’ll most likely have a client for life. Trust is one of the relatively few remaining things that no amount of money can buy. It’s also something that’s invaluable once you have it.

It helps you show — and earn — respect. Respect isn’t just about being polite and using your manners. To a much larger extent, it’s about letting people make their own decisions. Sure, you can offer your expertise and opinions — just don’t withhold or twist the truth in an attempt to manipulate or manage. Also, people respect you more when you tell a difficult truth. They may not like what you have to say but they will think more of you for having the guts to say it.

The truth will set you free. Remember when you were a kid and your mother told you that if you told her the truth about how the lamp really got broken, you’d feel better? She was right! Making a commitment to always tell the truth will take a weight off your shoulders that you might not have even known was there! Not only do lies have their own psychic weight, they complicate your life. Truth-telling simplifies it.

Honesty is a catalyst for personal evolution. As you walk the path of putting your clients first, you’ll evolve as a person, not just as a professional. That’s because being honest with your clients isn’t always easy. In fact, in some situations, it might be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done.

It’s hard to define what a ‘good’ person is, but making honesty a constant part of your business will help you to move in that direction. JoAnn and I are not the same people we were 14 years ago. Before, we weren’t always sure we could trust the truth, and we paid for that with fear and anxiety. Now, we enjoy a wonderful calm, as well as the trust and loyalty of clients we would have once worried about losing.

Telling the truth is the best insurance. No matter what industry or field you’re in, things are occasionally going to go wrong. Despite your best efforts, clients will sometimes be disappointed and angry, and some will seek retribution. While you can’t prevent this eventuality, you can protect yourself by consistently being honest.

Honesty is a powerful magnet. When you cultivate a reputation for honesty, you’ll be surprised by how quickly and how far the word spreads. Clients want to work with businesses that won’t play them false, and when they believe they’ve found a good thing, they’ll tell others! And, of course, they themselves will stay loyal.

Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway, coauthors of Super Agent: Real Estate Success at the Highest Level and The New York Times bestseller, reached a billion dollars in real estate sales in their first 10 years, a feat never before achieved. They are founders of Scottsdale-based real estate company Those Callaways.

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