Auto Service World
Feature   November 16, 2020   by Allan Janssen

Confidentiality in the workplace


By Jeff Mowatt

Have you ever had a potential customer who seemed nervous and reserved, rather than excited about doing business with you?

It happened in a weird way for me. The senior managers seated around the boardroom table were excited about a new technology they had developed that would disrupt their market and separate them from their competitors. They had brought me in to help craft their sales message and to eventually train their reps on how to introduce it to their customers.

Along with their excitement, though, I sensed some tension. So, after the vice president of marketing introduced me, my first remark to the brass was, “I know this goes without saying, but I will treat everything we discuss here with the highest confidentiality.”

I immediately noticed a huge look of relief on the CEO’s face. And from that point on, things went just fine.

Customers are not always comfortable about asking you for discretion, but they always appreciate it.

As we build relationships
with our wholesale
and retail clients,
there is a temptation
to ask a lot of questions.
This has to be done
thoughtfully and sensitively.

In today’s data driven world, we face the double-edged sword of needing more information from our customers in order to increase our efficiency in serving them, even as they are getting ever more leery of disclosing it.

Disclosing facts, figures, and data points is a sensitive transaction these days. It comes with a leap of faith on their part that you will treat it carefully, and not lose or abuse it. And it comes with a great deal of responsibility on your part.

As we build relationships with our wholesale and retail clients, there is a temptation to ask a lot of questions – both professional and personal. This has to be done thoughtfully and sensitively.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, where people routinely “overshare’ on social media, where coffee shops are used as offices, and where cell phones can record just about anything at any time, discretion is on the wane and confidentiality is an increasingly rare commodity.

That’s why you can gain tremendous trust with your customers by simply following these five unwritten rules of customer confidentiality.

Rule #1

Know that you’re in a position of trust

We’ve all heard of doctor-patient confidentiality and lawyer-client privilege. Some professions are sworn to secrecy about their customers’ affairs for good reason. Your customers deserve the same discretion from you.

Whenever you talk to others about specific customers, assume those customers are in the room with you, or that they will read everything you post or write about them. If what you’re sharing isn’t complimentary and publicly known, keep it to yourself.

Clients need to be reassured that you’ll be discreet with their data. And that starts with explaining why you’re asking certain questions, and what you plan to do with the information you glean. Above all, avoid collecting data that you don’t intend to use.

Thank them for their trust, and give them reason to believe you’ll be a model of discretion.

Rule #2

Remember Starbucks isn’t a confession booth

We’re all getting used to Zoom meetings, and now that economies are starting to open up, it won’t be long before the person on the other end of that web call will once again be in a coffee shop or other public space.

I once hired a consultant who was based in another city to do some work on our website. We scheduled a conversation via Zoom about my brand and target market. To my dismay, he logged into the call from a coffee shop. Throughout our conversation, I was seeing customers come and go in the background. Not only was it distracting, but it felt like a violation of my privacy as a client.

There are good reasons why lawyers and accountants won’t host you in their office. Instead meetings are held in a private meeting room. One reason is that you shouldn’t see files lying on their desk from other clients who may be under legal investigation, or filing for bankruptcy. Another is so your meeting will not be seen or overheard by others. Coffee shops are for casual coffee; not for doing business.

Rule #3

There’s a difference between small talk and prying

Keeping things professional is more than just a point of expediency. It is part of the public mood. The information you request needs to be directly related to your business, or you run the risk of overstepping the bounds of your relationship, and offending your client.

Has this ever happened to you in a restaurant? While you’re inserting your credit card into the point-of-sale machine, and figuring out how much to tip, the server asks, “So what are your plans for the rest of the evening?” Pardon?! When did our relationship develop to the point where I would share my personal plans with you!

The key to making small talk sound natural and appropriate is context and relevance. Read the room. Unless you’ve been chatting about weekend plans with that person, it is better to stick to safe topics.

Rule #4

Yes, your loud phone conversation is annoying

This is a growing concern at the counter, in meetings, and in public.

People who talk at length on cell phones around other people are not acting professionally. It reflects a total lack of self-awareness and distain for basic civility. Worse, it telegraphs the fact that they are very casual about the privacy of the person on the other end of the phone. They’re damaging their own reputation and are too oblivious to realize it.

Don’t be one of these loud-talkers. Move to a quiet area and lower your voice. You never know what information will prove useful to someone around you, and detrimental to the customer you’re talking to.

Rule #5

You don’t have to express every feeling

This is perhaps the most important confidentiality lesson at work and in life. We can’t un-say something we blurt out in the heat or mirth of the moment. Similarly, it is difficult (and sometimes ineffectual) to un-post a comment, or un-tweet an inappropriate remark.

No doubt you can think of numerous examples at work and in the news where a little discretion and self-restraint would have saved significant fallout.

While it’s tempting to be drawn into adding our two cents to a discussion, perhaps the greatest contribution we can make to the relationship is remaining silent. We hope in turn that when we say or do something less than brilliant, others won’t share it with the world. Ironically, kindness and maturity are often best reflected when you keep quiet. That can also lead to greater trust from your clients.

This is particularly important now, as we approach a U.S. election that will surely be divisive and contentious. You may not know the politics of the person on the other end of the phone, so don’t offer an opinion that could offend.

Increasingly, our conversations reveal datapoints that can be valuable to someone. Our clients are learning to hold some information back, and they’re suspicious when the businesses they deal with ask for information before proving that they will be good data stewards.

In a world where data is power, discretion is key. And understanding the value of confidentiality will help you build trusting relationships.


Jeff Mowatt is a customer service strategist, and bestselling author, based in Calgary, Alta. This article is based on his book Influence with Ease. You can reach him at