Protect your reputation: Distinguishing between puffery and a lie

December 20, 2012

By Bob Johnson, NAID CEO

In most industries, a good reputation is paramount to meaningful sustained success. It just so happens that in the secure destruction industry there is still a lot of customer (and service provider) confusion about what the laws require. Unfortunately, that confusion creates an environment that tempts service providers to capitalize on that confusion.

One small example, and in my mind not all that harmful, is when a service provider claims to be HIPAA compliant. Now, I assume they are HIPAA compliant if they meet the requirements of the security and privacy rules, which is now legally required. In reality, however, that is not what they really mean to say, since that has no benefit necessarily to the client. Usually, what they are trying to convey is better stated as “our service can help your organization be HIPAA compliant,” which is a lot more important to the HIPAA covered entity. Still, I would say no harm, no foul.

Even less troubling to me is when a service provider says something like “The leading secure destruction service in the state.” Obviously, there are a hundred ways to defend that statement (i.e., leading in what?). Beyond that, most customers see such a statement for what it is: marketing puffery.

On the other hand, confusion in the marketplace lends itself to other, much more troubling misrepresentations, some of which actually put the customer at risk. One such situation is when the customer decides to use a service based on a false claim about the service provider’s qualifications. For instance, if a website indicates to customers that the services being offered meet some level of advanced scrutiny (as required by law) but they have not, then that’s a lie and one that could get the customer in trouble.

There are also lies of omission, say for instance, when a service is being outsourced without the customer’s knowledge. This sets up another scenario where the customer could be left hanging. Legally, they are responsible to have a system to validate the service provider’s capabilities, which is not possible if it is outsourced without their knowledge.

In his book “Powerful Times,” Eamonn Kelly explains that we live in a period where we should expect that anything we do that is shady or embarrassing will eventually come to light. So, while it is preferable to be truthful because it is ethical, the reality is that doing so is also a matter of survival. Recovering from the public disrepute is usually not in the cards, especially in a business where trust is the ultimate currency.