Under Promise, Over Deliver

I really liked the business principle “under promise and over deliver” from the first time I heard it.  It made total sense to me:  follow through on your commitments and exceed what you said you’d do.  I think this is a good approach to all facets of life, not just running a business.  Your boss asks when you can get a project finished by, you give a date and manage to turn it in 2 days early, perhaps with enough time for some feedback and to create another version.  Your wife wants you to help out more around the house and you commit to walking the dog every morning (and end up putting on coffee and taking out the trash at the same time).

I have, on a  number of occasions, interacted with people who wanted to make me happy while we were talking, so they promise me something that it later turns out there was no chance of them delivering.  The end result was I become MUCH less happy after they’d failed to do what they said they would.  I did some proof reading of an academic paper years ago, and when I showed up for a scheduled editing session, the author would say it wasn’t ready, but to come back in 3 hours or the next day and each time I came back, he needed more time (it happened 4 or 5 times).  I was livid by the end of it.  It would have been absolutely fine if, in the first place, he’d just told me to come back in a week.

Rogers and Bell like to deliberately do the same thing.  They offer a good deal to get you as a customer, then spring a bunch of “hidden” fees and changes to the deal to make it more profitable to them.  I think this is a large part of why people hate both companies.  The deal sounds great when they are trying to get you to sign up, then it stinks when you’re a customer.  They over promise and under deliver and it drives people nuts.

In my opinion, the best way to make a commitment to someone, is to honestly appraise (to yourself) what you’re willing to do for them, then pull back a bit to give yourself a “fudge factor” (quote a slightly longer delivery time, slightly higher cost, slightly lower quality, etc).  If the project takes longer (or is more expensive), you’ll still be able to fit within your original estimate.  If you’re able to complete it on the original estimate, you look like a hero.

On Star Trek, the original series, the chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (“Beam me up Scotty!“) had a reputation as being a miracle worker. As time passes in the series, it comes out that as well as being brilliant, he routinely pads his estimates.

There are other opinions on this.  Basically the counter argument is that it undermines people’s trust if you quote them something then exceed it (they’ll wonder why you didn’t commit to delivering that initially).  There’s also the fear that people will “compensate” if you consistently over deliver and start expecting it.  I don’t find either of these convincing arguments against taking this approach to interactions.  This happened to poor Scotty as Captain Kirk would cut the time allowed for repairs.

What do you think of “under promise, over deliver” as a mantra for “customer” interactions?

8 replies on “Under Promise, Over Deliver”

I agree in principle, that a business must at minimum deliver what they say they will and it’s a great practice to exceed people’s expectations. However, what’s promised still needs to be ‘adequate’. I promise my wife that I love her, but that doesn’t mean she gets presents ever.

I find in real estate which is my business that most people are being fed a line of crap almost all the time. People really seem to like it.

I can’t say I blame them, what would you you rather listen to?

1 – Real estate is the golden path to riches

2 – Real estate is a gnarly business and as an investor you’d better watch you ass before some of these smart talkers separate you from your hard earned cash.

Personally I hold the opinion that if you’re in the business of selling you’d better sell what the people want regardless of truth or integrity. It’s sad. Only in the direst of circumstances will someone actually want me to tell them the truth. Sometimes they’d rather keep losing money rather than change their ways. I wish the scientific method was adopted more in business. It’s not about your ego it’s about solving problems often by trial and error.

Ok so I’m a cynic, but I’ve been an observer of humanity for a while now….

Thank you for the timely article! I’ve noticed from experience those individuals that see your value of meeting deadlines and out performing can be a potention problem. They start to demand more of your time and can lead to a tense business relationship. Not fun.
I think the principle of ‘under promise and over deliver’ is great but over time a reputation will grow and can lead to an expectation gap of what is expected. So if something comes up and now you need that extra bit of time to get the work done then the recepient feels like they didn’t get what they expected (which was your reputation), regardless if you still met the deadline and criteria.

Again thanks for a timely article … I’m having to deal with a couple work relationships at the moment where this has happened.

What is even more annoying these days is the commercial for the Rogers business line about how you can get a live operator. It tells me that they recognize how annoying their Rogers customer service line is and is not willing to change it.

I’ve always told my guy friends that this is a great approach to dating women. Not that you should always make yourself out to be someone you’re not but it can definitely help you a lot of the time when you’re looking to impress or just catch someone off guard with a nice gesture.

I constantly get over promised things by contractors (dates etc.). I take everything they say with a grain of salt unless it’s in writing. I find myself just as bad as they are but am improving over time. It’s hard to resist feeding a client what you know they want to hear, especially when put on the spot. Now when asked for a completion date etc. I always say I’ll get back to you on that so I can look at my schedule and be realistic.

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