The fine art of under-promising and over-delivering

Spoken | August 9, 2016

Do you under-promise and over-deliver?

11387828_s.jpgIn the world of customer service, it’s fair to say that the bar is set quite low. Most people just want to have their issue resolved and be on their merry way. And in the office, when it comes to product offerings and deadlines, we’ve been musing over whether it would be better to set a high bar and perhaps miss it by a day or two or to under-promise and deliver a pleasant surprise when the product is ready earlier than anticipated. You know, like when the hostess tells you a table will be ready in 20 minutes but then seats you in ten minutes. What’s the harm?

Aim high or aim low?

On the surface, under-promising and over-delivering sounds good because customer service always seeks to exceed expectations. Falling short of expectations is a great way to lose customers and eventually work your way out of business. We all know that people will be more than happy to express their dissatisfaction when you let them down. So, falling short of expectations or “under-delivering” is certainly something to avoid.

On the other hand, is it a good idea to under-promise?  Hmm, now there’s some food for thought. Under-promising can be a little dangerous in that it implies that we are setting the bar extremely low. Low expectations will do us no favors in business, or in life for that matter. Constantly keeping the expectations low in order to cover yourself in the event of a mistake is simply not good business. You will never stand out from your competition by maintaining low expectations. So, how do you balance the equation of delivering the goods while setting a high standard?

Here’s a great example in a recent article by Thomas Phelps in about careers.

“Imagine that you are a Financial Adviser, who, after conducting days, weeks or months of research, have found a stock that is primed to deliver tremendous gains. You call several of your clients whom you feel will be able to and interested in investing in this stock. While there are no guarantees in the stock market, all evidence points to nothing but growth for this company, so your optimism is high.

If you tell your clients that the stock should deliver 15 to 20 points of return over the next few months but are more comfortable in assuming a 10 to 12 point return, you have officially over-promised. You now need the stock to hit at least 15 points in order to deliver on your promise.

If, however, you suggested that the stock could produce an 8 to 10 point return, you have created a much safer assurance. Now if the stock performs at the expected 15 to 20 points of return, your under-promise will be met with elation as the stock over-delivered.”

First, notice in this example that the Financial Advisor spent much time doing his research before he made any recommendations. In a sales situation, knowing as much as possible before diving in with unfounded promises is a key way to avoid disappointing the client. At the same time, this example illustrates how the bar was not set too low, but perhaps more reasonably or conservatively, allowing the FA to under-promise on expectations and over-deliver on results.

Under-promising in project management

Here’s another example: Say you’re a project manager and you have promised the client that the project will be done by Friday. You know that you and your team are capable of getting the project completed and delivered by Wednesday, and this deadline becomes your internal goal (not expressed to the client). Provided no unforeseen issues arise, the project is completed and delivered by Wednesday; you have an extremely happy client whose expectations have been exceeded. If, however, there are issues, you’ve built yourself and your staff a buffer of two extra days to resolve those and deliver the project to the client on Friday, as promised. In this scenario, your timeline given to the client is a realistic one that sets your team up for success rather than failure. Your early delivery of Wednesday rather than Friday, exceeds your client’s expectations and makes you and your team look stellar! Either way, you have a happy client. You under-promised with a reasonable time-line and over-delivered with an early delivery.

So, do you prefer to aim high or to under-promise? What do you think? Comment and let us know your thoughts!

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