Villing & Company

Business Ethics: Where Should We Draw The Line in Exploiting Customer Ignorance?

Recently, I received a call which claimed to be from Microsoft Technical Support. In broken English, I was informed that my computer had been sending notifications that were consistent with malware. The caller asked to take remote control of my computer to show me the problem. Being suspicious, I asked him to walk me through it over the phone. He proceeded to send me to obscure programs to demonstrate that my PC was infected. While we talked, I Googled these programs and verified that they were not indicative of malware.

When I presented this fact, he simply tried another way to convince me I had a problem. I have to admit, if I didn't know as much about computers, it's very possible I would have been tricked. But, as it happened, the phone call eventually degenerated into me simply repeating "stop trying to scam people, what you're doing is wrong" over and over until he hung up, declaring "don't blame me if your computer starts operating poorly." (It's still working fine.)

It's pretty clear that this behavior is unethical. At best, these scammers are exploiting their customers' ignorance to sell them products they don't need; at worst, they may actually install malware or steal information once they gain access to someone's machine.

However, as I was thinking about this incident, I realized that we often deal with similar situations in normal business activities.

For instance, I always feel at a disadvantage when I go in for an oil change and the dude shows me my nasty air filter. What the heck is it supposed to look like? I'm certainly not doing wind tests to properly gauge the filter's effective airflow.

In the same way, many people don't understand HTML, so when we're pricing changes to a website, the client is often ignorant of the difficulty of the change. It would be pretty easy to throw out technical sounding mumbo-jumbo to justify over-charging for a simple change.

I'm sure that many companies do this. There are probably those who feel it's their job as a salesperson to sell; it's the customer's responsibility to be informed. An uninformed customer deserves to pay more.

To me, those companies are dangerously close to my friend from "Microsoft Technical Support."

It's not always easy to be ethical. In fact, when J.C. Penney tried to be more honest with its pricing, customers didn't understand, so the company returned to its former strategy of artificially inflating prices to make sales look better.

So what does it take to be ethical in this area?

Here's my thought on the issue: I think that you should try to conduct your business in such a way that a fully informed customer would respect your business practices. Even if your customers are typically not informed, you should treat them as you would if they were. Here's a thought experiment: would a former employee feel comfortable working with your company as a customer without receiving special treatment? If the answer is "no," you might be exploiting your customers' ignorance unethically.

If ethics matters to you, it's at least worth reviewing your most potentially questionable practices. Ultimately, running your business ethically is the best long-term strategy. You don't want to get in the position that J.C. Penney finds itself, where you're unable to correct the mistakes of your past without significantly damaging your business. And you certainly don't want to be in the position of the tech support scammer, where your entire business model relies on customer ignorance and deception.

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