Our company distributes equipment for the construction industry; we represent several manufacturers. A customer recently asked our sales department if the product we recommended to the customer is the best one available. We answered in the affirmative even though we suspected that another product might be superior, but not available through us. Is that wrong?

With apologies to the 18th Century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who felt quite strongly that it is never appropriate to tell a lie; I do believe there are situations in which telling an untruth is not a bad thing. The classic example, of course, is when the Nazis knock on the door and ask if you are hiding any Jews in the house, and you answer negatively even though you have a family concealed on the fourth floor. Fortunately, very few of us have this situation occurring on a regular basis.

However, I will go out on a limb here and say that I generally agree with Kant; there are not many situations in which consciously lying is ethically correct. But your question needs a bit more clarification before an objective answer may be given. You are probably okay if your answer to the customer’s question was, “Yes, this is the best option we have for you.” Or perhaps you might answer, “In our experience, this is the best recommendation for you.” But you probably have a problem if your answer is, “There is no better option for you anywhere in the marketplace.” Flat-out lying is justified in cases of life and death, or when telling the truth would needlessly cause emotional pain or embarrassment. “Does this hat make me look silly?”

It seems to me that full disclosure and transparency is the best course of action in most cases. So, an answer to your customer might be, “We have a good knowledge of the marketplace and we have chosen to represent the best manufacturers in this space. There may be an occasional product of another manufacturer that is equal to or better than ours in some ways; but on an all-inclusive basis we believe we will provide you with the best options for the long term.” It also seems to me that a blanket affirmative answer leads to suspicion rather than comfort. If you tell me you have the absolutely, best product available, I begin to question whether anyone can know that. So, what else are you telling me that may be an exaggeration?

The other aspect of this question relates to “omission.” Is it wrong to fail to disclose all aspects of a product unless the customer asks specifically for that? The client asks if the insurance policy covers everything, and we respond that, yes, it covers all the standard perils. But after the property floods, we confirm that flood is not one of the standard provisions; and yet flood coverage certainly was an option and probably should have been discussed. Or, the customer asks for a piece of construction equipment that is comparable to the other that he presently owns. We sell him one that has most of the components, but not all; this is an omission and is not honest.

So, I believe that the bottom line on this is that if the answer you give has any potential to be incomplete or inaccurate, you probably should give further explanations. You will build confidence in most customers and go a long way toward assuring a continued relationship.