Monday Mornings with Madison

Under-Promising and Over-Delivering

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Estimated Read Time:  5 1/2  min.

It’s been said (many times) that companies should strive to under-promise and over-deliver.   Under-promising and over-delivering is seen as a good philosophy to control customer expectations and ensure that every customer becomes a raving fan when they get more than they expected.  On the other hand, there are those who would argue that this is a great way to drive a business into the ground.  Some see this as a formula for failure because it lowers the bar internally so that what is considered “above and beyond” is really nothing more than what the competition does on a regular basis without breaking a sweat.  It therefore encourages mediocrity.  Which is true?

Should a company seek to under-promise what it is offering clients?  And should a company try to over-deliver, going above and beyond what is standard?  Or should they set the bar high and strive to go above and beyond that?  This is the conundrum with which leaders have wrestled since companies first began competing for business.  There is no easy answer.   The truth is that it depends.  In certain situations, it is helpful to under-promise and over-deliver, but there are also times when under-promising and over-delivering actually hurts business.  Understanding when it is good to do this and when it isn’t is the key.

Solving the Service Riddle

When someone under-promises and over-delivers, he or she is setting the bar low and then exceeding that bar.  For example, Federal Express built its business around the promise of delivering packages overnight.  Their slogan says “When it positively, absolutely has to be there the next day.”  Not only do they promise next day delivery, they indicate that it will be there by noon.  However, drivers typically deliver packages before 11am.  That is an example of under-promising and over delivering.  The idea behind this concept is that, by controlling customer expectations and setting the bar at an easily-attainable level, a company can meet and exceed expectations thereby developing a great reputation for going above and beyond.  With this business model, Fed Ex was able to push Purolator Courier out of business.  (Anyone remember that company that got swallowed up by UPS?)  They also forced the U.S. Post Office to step up its ability to deliver packages more quickly.

Many companies have adopted this philosophy.  Case in point.  A recent purchase on June 11 through Amazon indicated that the package would be delivered between June 18 and June 21.  This item was not available through Amazon Prime and 2-day delivery was not available.  The same day, an email indicated that the package had been shipped.  It still said, however, that the package would arrive between June 18 and June 21.  The package arrived on June 13, five days sooner than the start of the delivery window communicated.  This is a classic example of under-promising and over-delivering.

When a company makes a promise that is understated, taking all of the factors of the situation into account, and then delivers early or above expectations, customers are left with a good feeling. To do this, a company usually thinks about the task or project at hand, estimates the time it might reasonably take to be completed, and then adds some time to the estimate given to the customer. For example, a business might say that a project will be complete by Friday when it could be finished on Wednesday.

If, on the other hand, someone makes ambitious claims and promises and then fails to live up to them, customers tend to grow irritated, feeling that false advertisements were made. Routinely failing to live up to expectations can make a company look bad, especially when the company itself sets those expectations. Products that are routinely delivered late, projects that linger, and deadlines that are not met typically frustrate and upset customers.  One way to avoid that problem is to under-promise and over-deliver.  That’s why so many companies take that approach.

When a company under-promises and over-delivers, there are a plethora of benefits.  First, when a finished product is delivered early, it pleases the customer.  The customer is likely to give a positive review and will also speak well of the company in the future to coworkers, neighbors and friends.  Since Yelp and other third-party reviews and endorsements are invaluable to business today, increasing the odds of getting a good review is no small thing.

Also, in the event that there is a problem or delay in the process of delivering a product or meeting a deadline, the company has created a buffer – wiggle room, if you will – to insulate it from failing to hit the deadline.  Airlines do this all the time.  Airlines will indicate that a flight going from Newark to Miami will take three hours.  That is built into the arrival time.  In truth, the flight should actually only ever take about two hours and 20-30 minutes, depending on wind or turbulence.  But airlines build some wiggle room into their logistics for delays in boarding, mechanical issues, gate changes, crew delays, delayed planes, etc.  This helps offset a bit their already really poor record of late flights. Airlines are thus encouraged to promise less and deliver more to retain customers and increase customer satisfaction.

The Dilemma of Lowering the Bar

However, those companies that adopt an under-promising / over-delivering approach need to be careful about taking this tack.  It’s important to set internal goals that are more demanding than the goals given to customers, and to stick with those.  You see, it’s not the over-delivering part that is dangerous. Over-delivering and dazzling customers is always a good idea.  It increases customer satisfaction, repeat business, and word of mouth.  All of this leads to referrals.  It is always good to add more value for customers.  There’s no such thing as giving too much service.  And, it’s not the commitment part that is an issue either.  It is important for companies to make promises it keeps.  This is just plain common sense.

The dilemma lies with the “under-promising” part of the equation.  Under-promising gives employees the impression that they can get away with offering the bare minimum.  But no one gets excited about a very low level of service or a very weak promise.  When an initial offer isn’t strong, a company cannot differentiate itself and stand out from the competition.  And, in this age of incessant noise, companies must differentiate or die.

With an explosion of competitors, many of whom are new and have no track record, reliability, rather than overly aggressive promises, is the most valuable strategic edge, especially for the mid- to long-haul. While getting faster at responding to customers is imperative, living up to commitments has never been worth more.

Under-promising isn’t going to make a brand command attention.  Under-promising can cause a company to lower its standards and create something less than spectacular.  No company trying to compete with Fed Ex is going to dazzle customers by offering next day delivery by 5pm.  No airline is going to lure customers away from a competitor by quoting that the flight time from NYC to Miami is 3 ½ hours, to then brag that 99% of its flights arrive on time.   And if an airline’s flights actually do start taking over three hours to arrive, customers won’t be impressed.  Customers – who know how long the actual flight time should be — will just be irritated that it took longer than other airlines’ flights from NYC to Miami.  Under-promising may make it easier for a company to keep a promise.  But it also has the unintended consequence of lowering the bar for staff who may then feel comfortable just barely hitting the mark.

Exceeding customer expectations is awesome. It’s good for business. But to over-deliver, a company must first make a promise that impresses.   This is where Sales and Marketing departments can help push a company in the right direction.  Marketing wants to be able to make the most impressive claims in its materials.  Salespeople want to be able to make the biggest promises.  Meanwhile, Operations and Customer Service will seek to control expectations and set the bar low.  Leadership must balance the push-pull of those competing interests to decide on an approach that sets the bar high, but not so high that it cannot be met.

Quote of the Week

“Promise more than what you can deliver and deliver more than you can promise.” Anonymous


© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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