Should we really under- promise?

  • By: Scott Miller, Fresno Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman and Owner of Gazebo Gardens

How many times have you heard the advice “Always under-promise and over-deliver”?  Since Tom Peters wrote his very successful book ‘In Search of Excellence’ in 1982, that phrase has been on the lips of many a business coach.  I’ve always thought it sounded like great advice.  It still is, in the context it was written.  

The problem is that with millions of repetitions over 30 years, some people have drifted away from the point Peters was trying to make. The real idea of this old chestnut is to wow your customers by giving them more value than they expect, but some people seem to interpret it as a warning that you should not to set your sights too high. The implication that you can impress your customers by setting low expectations for your business is preposterous.  I would argue that businesses need to promise a lot, and deliver even more, if they want to be great.

I recently had some work done at my home by a very well- established and respected contracting company.  The estimator was great, and went over a range of options for our project.  We accepted the quote and asked to be added to the schedule. Now comes the under-promising part.  They promised the work “within a few weeks” and “probably by the end of August”.  It was a two day job that we had accepted the first week of July.  I actually asked for a date and they literally couldn’t give me one.  The work ended up being good – but I was disappointed before they even started, because they were trying not to make a promise they couldn’t keep. 

But the fact is, all businesses make promises, whether explicit or implied.  All of your promises better be ones you can keep. Remember, keeping promises is nothing to pat yourself on the back for.  Businesses that don’t do what they promise won’t survive long.  So is it really a good idea to make lukewarm promises just so you won’t have a hard time keeping them?  Why is this silly notion so popular? 

One commentary I read on moneysmartblog.com used the Star Trek character Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (“Beam me up Scotty!“) as an example of why one should always under- promise.  Every episode, when the chips were down, Scotty (the ship’s engineer) would tell Captain Kirk “The ship’s fallin’ apart! She can’t take any more!” Every single time, he found a way to hold the ship together.  I understand the idea that this could make him look like a hero.  But that’s T.V.  In real life, don’t we all just want an engineer who reassures us that the ship won’t blow up in the first place?

Think of brands you respect and how they approach this:  Wheaties isn’t “The breakfast of bronze medalists,”  Disneyland isn’t “The happiest place in the Greater Anaheim Area,” and Nike doesn’t “Just try to do it”. 

Maybe I’m nitpicking.  Under promising is certainly better than over promising. Still, it’s a competitive world.  Why sell yourself short?

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