The Legal Ethics of Giving Out Business Cards and Soliciting
Giving out business cards, distributing fliers and approaching potential customers can all be effective at driving customers to your business. But when you're soliciting customers, you'll need to be mindful of legal and ethical restrictions. Breaking the law can damage your business's financial solvency and public reputation, and even the appearance of being unethical can lose you customers.
False or misleading advertising is illegal, and if you use your business cards to attract customers, you can't place false statements on them. For example, promising a 10 percent discount on your business card, then stating that the offer is no loner in effect could be a form of false advertising. Similarly, you can't make false claims in your solicitations. An accounting firm that solicited customers by promising to reduce their tax liability to zero would be in breach of false advertising laws.
Defamation is the act of making false, negative statements about someone else. Putting defamatory statements on your business cards such as, "The other guy will cheat you!" can subject you to a lawsuit. Similarly, defamatory statements such as, "Your lawyer is a crook!" made during solicitation attempts are also actionable. Under defamation law, businesses don't have to prove that defamation harmed them; the damage is presumed.
If you work in a profession that requires a license -- such as law, medicine or psychology -- your state's licensing board may have additional regulations for business cards. For example, lawyers generally can't solicit business from people they don't know, although they are of course allowed to talk to strangers; they simply can't call up a criminal defendant and offer legal services. Similarly, lawyers are prohibited from claiming that they are better than another lawyer -- either in writing on a business card or in a verbal solicitation. Each profession's licensing board establishes these rules, so if you have a professional license, you'll need to check with your licensing board, as rules are sometimes highly specific.
Direct solicitation is as old as business itself, but new technologies make it easier to directly target customers who are more likely to shop at your business. The federal SPY Act prohibits modifying a person's Internet browser to display your website, creating advertisements that viewers can't close, logging consumer's keystrokes, altering computer security settings and other questionable forms of solicitation. If you're soliciting door to door, refusing to leave after a resident asks you to is trespassing. Phone solicitors are required to honor the national Do Not Call Registry, and repeatedly calling a customer who has asked not to be called could lead to a hefty fine.