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A while back a customer asked if I knew a particular technology. At the time I was demonstrating a prototype of a product we were already developing for this customer, and the company had a good relationship with him. To me, the question seemed to come from the customer's curiosity and perhaps was an attempt to judge the acceptance of a new technology; I did not think it was a probe to find out if I could do a particular piece of work. My boss was there at the time. I was familiar with a parent technology to the one asked about, but not with the specifics of the newer technology, which was directly derived from the parent. In my answer to the customer, I made sure he knew that the technology he was asking about was a derivative of the technology I already knew and that I had a good working knowledge of the parent technology.

However, after the customer left, my boss reprimanded me. She said it was obvious the customer wanted work done with the technology in question and that our company would lose work because of my answer. She also said I should have simply told the customer that I knew the technology in question and that I could have learned the differences on the job.

My sense is that I was reprimanded for telling the truth and was being ordered to lie the next time such a question came up. What should I have said?

To my knowledge, the customer never did hire anyone (us or competitor) to do work using this technology.

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@Oded: There was no job. –  GreenMatt Dec 27 '12 at 21:10
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Are you me? Working in a small company where sales people outnumber technical people 4 to 1, where sales people will commit you to everything under the sun and where everybody is your best friend until you give the realistic notion to the customer that you can't provide the expertise and features of multi-million dollar enterprise software for under a million dollars. –  maple_shaft Dec 31 '12 at 12:34
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FWIW: I think you did the right thing. I always think it's better to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. If your boss is the company owner, eventually he'll have a reputation that keeps him from getting clients. If he's just a manager, then he'll eventually be found out as ineffective with clients. Either way: clients will gravitate toward those who will be honest with them (by and large). –  Ben Collins Aug 6 '13 at 21:50

12 Answers 12

up vote 25 down vote accepted

I don't think it's an unfair expectation, on your part, that you would answer truthfully any question, unless prepped to do otherwise. Even if prepped to lie, I don't think it would be unfair to say "I'm just not comfortable making that claim. Perhaps I shouldn't be in this meeting."

It is not your job to decide which lies to tell to make the company look better than it is. A lie might get them this job, or it could negatively effect the company's entire reputation. That decision is above your pay-grade.

But it can also affect your own reputation, for a very long time. So, even if your boss expects it, you have to decide if you're being paid enough to risk your future value. Imagine some point in the future, where you are applying for a job directly with this client.

Or maybe you'll be working for another company who is pitching for another job with the client. And your poor reputation could cost them big money, while they didn't need to lie to get the job.

In short, never lie unless told to. Only lie then if you're willing to accept the consequences. Any boss who lashes out at you for not lying is probably mad at themselves for not preempting the situation, but that's not your problem. You were asked a question and you told the truth. Good for you.

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"unless prepped" that's a very good point, preparation is important. Preparing to particular meeting I once told my boss that I disagree with one idea he was planning to "sell" at the meeting. He pushed me quite strongly to bend as "team player" (iirc that's managerial wording for you're-my-slave) and what helped me were 3 questions I asked... –  gnat Dec 28 '12 at 8:25
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..."Do you require me to lie on the meeting? Do you require me to lie to my colleagues after the meeting. If, outside of the meeting, someone in the company asks for my opinion, do you require me to lie, too?" Based on that, we arranged terms that were more comfortable to me. BTW a minute or two later (guy was smart and really fast:) he asked to present my POV in more details and after some thought, backed off his idea (which I think eventually saved him from quite some trouble if it was implemented) –  gnat Dec 28 '12 at 8:27
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@Petter: I don't agree. The employer should assume that, when they put a customer in contact with a grunt employee, the truth will be told except in two circumstances: First, if the employee has been told that the employer is going to be less than truthful, because they feel they need to in order to win a contract; second, if "the truth" casts an obvious bad light on the company ("You should see the hours they make us work here"). Spin is no better than lying. –  pdr Dec 29 '12 at 15:32
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@emory: Yes, I would say "that's really not something I'm comfortable giving you." That's not a lie or spin. –  pdr Dec 29 '12 at 19:08

Many people have suggested ways that you could "spin" your answer positively. However, it sounds to me like you already did that based on what you said here:

In my answer to the customer, I made sure he knew that the technology he was asking about was a derivative of the technology I already knew and that I had a good working knowledge of the parent technology.

The way I understand it, your boss wanted you to directly lie:

She also said I should have simply told the customer that I knew the technology in question and that I could have learned the differences on the job.

As a technical person, I would not do that, and would quit if the boss asked me to.

There are several reasons for this.

  1. Ethics. No job is worth your integrity.
  2. Trust. If your response is always "yes, I know X", your customers will catch on that you are lying and not trust anything you say.
  3. Failure. Sooner or later you'll commit to something you can't accomplish.

Personally, I have much more confidence in people who admit what they don't know. "I don't know that, but I'll find out" is an answer that shows humility and curiousity, and makes me much more likely to trust what the person does say they know.

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The trust issue goes deeper: how can you trust a boss who asks you to lie? –  reinierpost Mar 27 at 17:17

I am of the opinion that you should never lie. However, I believe that there are ways to respond to these sorts of inquiries that can satisfy all of the parties involved. Ultimately, the detail and the answer you provide needs to be relevant and appropriate to the goals of the participants involved and the level of caring they may have about your answer. Furthermore, your answer needs to address the real question being asked.

In this scenario, your boss cares about getting more business from the customer and ensuring that relationship remains positive and is more likely to say 'yes' to everything. Your customer cares more about the possibility of using your firm for additional work to resolve pain points that they may currently encounter. Furthermore, your customer has made an assumption here, in my opinion, by asking you about a specific technology rather than about solving a specific problem. Neither of those people care that the technology being asked about is a derivative of some other technology that you know.

In your position, you're basically walking a tightrope between 'saying yes to everything' and 'keeping your integrity.' This tightrope sucks, but here are some techniques for staying on it.

  1. If a customer asks you directly if you can do something, you never say 'No' outright. However, based on the complexity of the question, you defer and hand off to someone else to orchestrate while reinforcing confidence in your organization.
    For example: If a customer asks "What would it take to rebuild our ASP.NET website in WordPress?" you can answer "Well, that's a big question. I'd like to have a bit of discussion with you and do some research on my end before I'd be comfortable giving you a yes/no answer. I'll defer to my boss here to coordinate schedules and set something up. But this is certainly work similar to what we've successfully accomplished in the past."
  2. Always make sure you understand the real question being asked, but don't be a nag.
    For example: If a customer asks "What would it take to rebuild our ASP.NET website in WordPress?" you can answer "What is it about WordPress that is appealing to you?" or "What problem are you trying to solve by moving to WordPress?" They could answer anything from perceived cost to available resources to pre-canned themes or 100 other things. You can then try and offer solutions to their real problems. However, don't get into a protracted Q&A session that the customer might not be prepared for and don't hound them with thousands of questions at this point. You can then fall back on strategy #1 at this point.
  3. If you know that you have to do work to be able to answer the question with a definitive yes, don't say yes or no, but convey confidence and tell the right truth.
    For example, A customer asks "Do you know VB.NET?" Even if you've never used it, you can legitimately answer "I have an academic familiarity with it but haven't had an opportunity to use it in the workplace yet. However, given my extensive experience, I'm confident it would be a seamless transition for me." Then, immediately jump to #1 and defer to your boss to coordinate a later meeting.

Basically, what it comes down to is to be a little 'sales-y' by not saying no, never lie and defer to your boss as quickly as possible.

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+1 for the final comment, especially defer to the boss. –  GuyM Dec 27 '12 at 22:38
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#2 is excellent advice. A non-technical person may say "I want to use Wordpress" and really mean "I want to include a blog in our site." Probing further both shows that you care about meeting their needs and may let you show that your technology choice already handles that. –  Nathan Long Dec 28 '12 at 15:52

I think it is important to try and understand where your boss was coming from and why they were concerned.

From my perspective this is not about whether you should have "lied' to the client, but more about how you could have steered the conversation back onto the matter in hand - the prototype you were demonstrating - rather than a more "high risk" topic of conversation.

We tend to view our sales in two different ways - one is "technology-led" where its all about the product, and the other is "brand-led" where its all about our people, skills and values. While you may not use these terms, they probably apply.

Technology-led sales are hard to close. They can be long, drawn out processes where the client has a fixed idea of the product (or service) that they try and force into fitting on what you are selling. This can lead to a checklist mentality, which can make people focus on saying "no" as opposed to saying "yes", or the risks associated with the purchase.

It can also lead to what was described to me as "ugly baby" syndrome - if a client dislikes your product on technical grounds, you offer to endlessly modify and customise it, creating a very high cost of sale.

Brand-led sales tend to be easier to close; they are often based on peer group recommendation. Who else uses your product/service?" is a common question in this situation. When people want to own part of your brand, they usually look for ways of saying "yes" rather than saying "no."

Note that brand and technology are both important, but what you lead with sets the tone for the conversation.

In responding to the client's question, you took a "technology-led" approach; its hard not to when you are running a technical demonstration of a prototype. (You can also do brand-led demonstrations, where you highlight how the features and benefits reflect the companies thoughts and thinking; there's one technology company in particular that is very good at this.)

Technology-led is always a higher risk; in this case, I suspect that there was a concern from your boss that you were highlighting that you were not "at the leading edge" as you focussed on the older technology in your response. You also don't know the client's opinion of the techologies in question, so again there is a risk.

I'd also be careful of the "casual question" - if you ever saw the TV show Culumbo you'll understand why. Some people adopt this as a tactic.

Depending on your company, a "brand/people" led response might have been:

"We have huge experience with technology X, which underpins this, and I know the basics of technology "Y" already. I find this kind of transition very easy - its essentially part of what we do - and we would be able to include technology Y if it was a strong requirement."

Its quite a bland statement, but it could move the conversation back on track to the prototype you were demonstrating.

The risk of a brand-led sale is over selling - you win the contract based on brand alone, and then cannot deliver on the technical requirements.

The key thing I would suggest is that in future, that meeting with your boss to discuss the 'selling strategy' for a particular client ahead of time is a good move.

You need to understand the main features, advantages and benefits of what you are trying to sell, have identified the risks the client may worried about and developed agreed responses to these that you are both comfortable with.

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In this situation (having had a day to think about this) the best way to handle that question is to redirect with another question to find out what the customer is wanting to know. Something to the effect of:

I have been doing this for quite a while and know quite a bit about working with the technology, What is it you want to know?

From here you can understand what the customer is wanting to understand. I have worked with clients that have been convinced that share point is the best platform for every project by other companies. I do not really work in SharePoint but have enough of an understanding to know its strengths and weaknesses and can usually defend my choice of platform. Sometimes the customer may be looking for a feature they believe only exists in another technology and I can explain how we can implement that feature(or rarely not) with the current solution. But asking the questions helps you help your customer best.

If you find out that the customer desires the work done in something in a different technology you do not know you can always defer to your manager explaining that you have many developers with different areas of expertise.

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This sounds like an ethical dilemma type of question. I'd probably suggest talking with your boss to know what is the stock answer when someone asks about knowledge of a particular technology which may be peripheral to the prototype. If your boss tells you to lie, then you have to decide what standards do you have for your workplace. Some people may be fine with slight embellishments here and there, while others would want an honest answer of, "While I don't know this right now, I could pick it up quickly enough to do a good job on the project for you," kind of answer that I'm sure is similar to what junior developers may say when they go for a job in a language they haven't used yet.

The key question here is that the customer asking the question may well want to know, "Can you do this or do I have to look somewhere else?" though that may be seen as rather impolite and possibly hostile. Your boss is wanting diplomacy here in the sense of, "This is your one-stop to do anything you need. We got it here!" which may or may not be something you'd be willing to accept as an answer to the customer's query.

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FYI, I've edited the question to add a bit more detail, in case it changes what you want your answer to be. –  GreenMatt Dec 27 '12 at 21:32

As your customer, I would be much more impressed with you showing me how comfortable you are telling me the truth. A real expert is someone who is focused in a certain area. If you were to tell me that you know a little bit of everything, that would be a clear statement that you are not an expert in anything.

As for your boss, I'm sure this is not the first time she has had this kind of reaction. You won't change her. The market is HOT right now; get a better boss.

What should I have said?

Though it doesn't matter now, next time you can try:

Nancy, I am open to suggestions on how I can improve my communication with clients; however, this does not include being untruthful.

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Hello, I'm not the downvoter, but it's possible someone thought that you didn't address the full question. "My sense is that I was reprimanded for telling the truth and was being ordered to lie the next time such a question came up. What should I have said?" While debatable whether you did or didn't answer the question, my suggestion is to edit and clarify that part of your answer to make it more clear. Hope this helps! :) –  jmort253 Dec 28 '12 at 21:30

My sense is that I was reprimanded for telling the truth and was being ordered to lie the next time such a question came up. What should I have said?

Imagine the following situation. You are asked about technology XXXX. You have no experience whatsoever with it. You can answer one of the two following ways:

  1. "I don't know that technology."
  2. "I personally am familiar with it and have worked with closely related technologies, but BOSS would have a better understanding as to our companies knowledge of that technology."

You are likely an individual contributor. You likely have nearly no experience in the business side of sales/negotiations/business deals.**

Here is a fact many (most?) software/engineering employees hate: you are involved in marketing and sales every time you have an interaction like this.

You might be the technical rep. You might be the "when people have questions the marketing person doesn't know this is the only time you talk" rep. But no matter what your role, when you are trying to secure a deal/sell something (whether your company services or company product) you are a salesperson -- no matter what your daily work is.

Always answer in such a way which is both honest but also does not simply indicate "no" to the customer. If you have to say "no" always get more dialogue by adding something else. For example even if you had no experience whatsoever you could respond in such ways as

  • "No, but others on our team have worked with this before"
  • "No, but I have been learning that technology for fun recently"
  • "No, but my boss might know better"
  • "No, but our team prides itself on learning new technology, as evidenced by A, B, C"
  • "No, but I have experience in this related technology which is very similar"

etc.

If you want to better understand this, take an afternoon and go shopping/browsing for cars (make sure to show some serious interest) and observe how car salesmen respond to questions. They never respond with just a simple answer. It's always "yes, would you like to see this?" or "no, but we have it in these other colors" or something similar.

**note: this answer is specifically intended to be generic towards most people in technical positions. This may not apply to you but applies to probably 90%+ of those who may have similar questions.


Other answers do a pretty good job addressing the "boss wants me to lie" part of your question. All I am going to add is if this bothers you, you might consider having a conversation about this subject with your boss. Don't say "you want me to lie." But approach it as, "hey, I noticed you seemed a bit upset on how I answered that last customer interaction, and I'd like to learn how to better handle those sorts of sales interactions."

You may have simply misunderstood your boss. She may have misunderstood you (maybe she thought you knew the technology and were doing some sort of "well... I know it but am not really confident" type of thing? who knows).

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I am sort-of on the side of your boss.

Technical proficiency is only a part of the total package needed to carry through a project. Projects can succeed perfectly smoothly even if the team is not well-versed in every aspect of the technology platform that is being used. There are other aspects of the project in areas such as requirements capture, support and overall customer-vendor relationship that can trump deficiencies in "trivia" related to the technology.

And anyway if you look hard enough, it is always possible to find deficiencies in knowledge, skill, and experience in any team that is about to start a project. For this reason, it is better to NOT free-associate these deficiencies when asked casually. If the project is even remotely possible for your team to handle, then you should do everything possible to keep opportunities open-- at least until you can fully evaluate the request for proposal.

What happened here, I think, is that your boss felt you may have cut-off the opportunity for further dialog with the customer and perhaps even a bid.

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"Technical proficiency is only a part..." I agree with this but I think it's boss' area of knowledge, and respectively their responsibility to guide here. In the question, it looks like boss just didn't do their due diligence and failed to properly educate their technical partner. When I used to work as tech partner of communication professionals they always instructed and prepared me, carefully and thoroughly - and as a result, at our meetings there were no glitches like one described by OP –  gnat Dec 28 '12 at 13:05
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well, yes, it needs to be general. An example of pretty fascinating thing I learned from professionals I mentioned was making signals at negotiation. Like, if either of us says Let me put it another way... this sends a message to a partner watch out, here you f@cked up - stuff like that. Pretty useful when either of us was getting to say something slippery outside of their respective area of knowledge. –  gnat Dec 28 '12 at 13:22

This is why you need to be a good politician even if you are an engineer, designer or other non management role. You need to get out of that questions as soon as possible without really stating you are an expert and not stating you don't know it at all (hence closing the business opportunity).

Try figuring out what your customer is really asking. Do they need help in this particular area - and if, would you be able to help them out on a longer term? If so, don't blow it with a "No" first second. Maybe, they are trying to evaluate that technology to something else. Try to get all details, be vauge about your actual expertice in the area and propose a workshop about this technology. It might give you time to get into it enough to have a first meeting about it. The case might be that you can get up running on this technology in a couple of days of training since you know the parent technology well and have great experience in the field.

A specific piece of technology is often only part of the story about a job. Your boss knows this and she seems to want to play the game along with her. In some businesses you don't have a choice but play along - just remember to deliver what you promise in contracts later on.

Update:

Just thought of something. If you have senior colleagues you can perhaps take this question home and have a second try by stating that you are pretty sure you have collegues that have more experience on this particular task. Then you could at another day book a meeting or workshop with another employee from your firm (if it's possible to arrange).

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When I worked for others, I was frequently put in this position.

At first I tried to be accommodating to the demands of my boss. So, I went with the "yes, we can do that" attitude no matter what it was that the client was asking about in order to get the contract signed.

Later I learned that this all to frequently leads to project failure. When you don't really understand the requirement or technology they are asking about then you have no idea what it is really going to take. This leads to projects that are way underbid, which means both management AND the customer are mad.

With my own business I have absolutely zero problems telling a potential client: "We don't do that" or "That's not on our development plan". If our capabilities aren't enough for the client out of the gate then I'd rather lose the potential client now than lose them later along with the loss of reputation.

This attitude led to another light bulb moment: a lot of clients are simply trying to explore the boundaries of what you can do. Quite often those "requests" prior to signing a contract are more pie in the sky things, not necessarily core necessities and ultimately don't figure into whether they engage with you or not.

tldr;

Stick to what you know and don't be afraid to tell the client "I don't know, but I can find out" or even "No." If your manager has a problem with that then you likely don't want to work for them anymore.

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I agree with @Jacob G, and I want to add that when I have been in this situation I have usually responded by honestly stating my current experience, then stating that I would welcome the opportunity to have a purpose for expanding my current knowledge in said field.

For instance, on a job interview, I was asked if I had knowledge of Portlets. My response, which was 100% truthful, was that I had never done Portlets directly, but my limited knowledge was that they were an extension of the Java Servlets spec, with which I have had pretty good experience with. When asked to elaborate I was then awarded the benefit that I could explain terms in relation to what I knew, Servlets, and be forgiven if I misstate something that might be different in Portlets.

The new boss saw in me the ability to relate my current general knowledge on a subject and to extract what I know and apply it "outside the box" to things I might not be so solid on. Ultimately, I got the job, after which my new boss told me was mostly because of how I handled the subjects I didn't know versus me saying "Oh, yeah, I have complete knowledge of that!".

Ultimately, I think most managers want to know if you are capable of figuring things out, not that you know every subject matter on the planet. I like to say "Jack of all trades, master of none", or rather "Jack of all trades, master in time".

When it comes to consultations with potential clients, how you answer these questions is very similar to how you might answer the questions in a job interview, so the same concepts apply. Even though my particular example was a job interview, the context was that I was asked a question that I sort of had an answer, but wasn't an "expert" on. This matches your description of a situation where you were asked something you sort of had an answer too, but weren't an "expert" on.

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Hi CodeChimp, I edited your post to fix some of the spelling and grammar, as well as to add that the situation you describe can also apply to the asker's situation, a consultation with a potential client and not a job interview. I suspect this is why people may have downvoted your post. If my edits are incorrect, please feel free to roll them back. Hope this helps! –  jmort253 Dec 28 '12 at 21:27

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