The great danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling too short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
Introduction to Managing Expectations
Whatever it is you do in life, you should become an expert in managing other people’s expectations. It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of a large multi-national company or you clean plates at a restaurant.
You see, all walks of life have one thing in common – you don’t work or live alone. Humans are social animals, and that’s why whatever we do, we do with other people.
These people we work, live, and play with are not under our control. They have developed under different conditions and often bring a huge amount of baggage, both intellectual and emotional, to any situation.
To make sure we don’t end up trying to strangle each other every time something doesn’t quite go to plan (which is going to be often – trust me) we need to make sure we become experts in managing other people’s expectations.
When we are talking about other people’s expectations of us, there are three things that can happen
- We fall short of their expectations.
- We match their expectations.
- We exceed their expectations.
Depending on what their expectation of us is, we will want a different result. If the person in question thinks we are an idiot, let’s not exceed their expectations and show that we are even more of an idiot than they previously imagined!
Clearly this can become a difficult case of cat-and-mouse, because generally no-one will actually tell you what their expectations are, so it’s virtually pointless to try and second-guess them. A much better approach is to set clear, transparent and positive expectations, and then either match or exceed them.
This is exactly what I want to discuss today.
Why we should aim to under-promise and over-deliver and how we should go about it. While I think under-promising and over-delivering is a great technique, there are also a few considerations that we must keep in mind, or the whole approach can quickly backfire. I will point out a few of the common pitfalls to always over-delivering at at the end of this essay.
It’s a Two Step Process
Under-promising and over-delivering. It’s a two step process. This really isn’t rocket science.
That’s it. Seriously. It’s simple but it can give great results. Unfortunately sometimes the simple things in life are not the easiest. Let’s take a closer look at each step.
1. Under Promise
When we promise something, we have to be very, very careful. If we fail to deliver on our word the best case scenario is that we won’t be taken seriously again and that we lose the trust and connection we have built with that person over time. In the worst case you might find yourself in court, prison or worse.
You should make sure that your word is golden. If you say something, you absolutely know, whatever the hell happens, that you can deliver. This is much easier said than done, especially when we are talking about situations that are not “big” or “life-changing”.
I’ve often broken my word and it didn’t “feel” like it was my fault. Life just got in the way. There was a delay, or the whole affair was dependent on other people who didn’t deliver on their word, which it turn makes me not keep my word. You should only promise things which are under your, or your team’s, control.
We should be careful exactly by how much we under-promise. If you under-promise too much, your clients will see through it for the cheap trick it is, and probably won’t be impressed.
A good way to know how to set deadlines is to think of the most common problems you might have during a project, and calculate those delays into your estimate. So if all goes well, you can deliver the project early, and hopefully at a higher quality than expected. If everything goes pear-shaped, you should still comfortably finish in time.
2. Over Deliver
This is the easy part. Simply This means you need to give a result that is objectively better than what has been promised. This often takes more resources than you would normally budget for a certain task. There are actually various ways you can over-deliver:
- Qualitative over-delivery. This is when someone expects you to do something at a certain standard, and you measurably exceed that standard. You might actually deliver less in quantity and perhaps even go over your deadline (if it’s a work project) but you will blow them away with a much higher level of quality than they ever expected.
- Quantitative over-delivery. This is about volume. You promise three apples and you deliver five. A great example of this is any sales-related job. You can promise your manager x amount of sales and then deliver y, a much larger number. This is always a sure-fire way to get noticed, as people understand quantity quite easily, while quality can often be subjective.
- Time-based over-delivery.
If you can have it done by Wednesday, say you’ll have it done by Friday. Then, deliver it on Tuesday.
This is the whole do-it-by-Tuesday concept. Everyone appreciates this, as long as the previous two points do not get ignored.
Don’t deliver a shit piece of work a week early just because you can. This will make it look like you’re lazy and you just rushed the job to have more free time. Doing thing within the allotted time-frame is a must.
After all, who wants a delayed result that has extra things that they didn’t even ask for? So let’s be clear, you must at least match expectations when it comes to time.
If you only match the expectations in regards to time, then you must over-deliver in either quantitative or qualitative terms.
If you exceed the expectations with regards to time, then you don’t have to over-deliver in quantitative or qualitative terms but it’s an added bonus if you can accomplish either one.
Ideally, you would finish a project early and also deliver more than asked and of better quality. This can’t always happen, but when it does you can be sure that people will notice.
So now that we know how to go about under-promising and over-delivering, let’s take a moment to see exactly why we should do it.
The Benefits of Under Promising and Over Delivering
1. It Impresses People.
If you run a business and you consistently manage to over-deliver, your customers will love you. Nothing speaks better than not just doing what you were supposed to do, but doing more. The above quote about “have it done by Wednesday..” is actually a little bit misleading.
Choose how you want to over-deliver carefully and you will impress people. (On the question of whether you should care about impressing people is an entirely different subject, but the short answer is no, but if you can impress people for the right reasons then all the best for it.)
2. It’s a Great Insurance Policy.
A slightly Machiavellian approach to the whole idea, but still worth considering.
If you always aim to over-deliver and then life gets in the way, you will most probably not have a problem delivering on your original promise. Trust me, life will get in the way. Delays, shortcomings, mistakes and miscommunication all add up.
Another positive about under-promising is that you will always promise something that you know for certain that you can do, that’s the whole point – you can never fail. I wrote an aptly-named essay called “How to Never Fail” that might be worth a read.
So, in an ideal world you should never break your word, and eventually friends, customers and work colleagues will recognise that. This leads nicely onto the next point…
3. It Makes Your Word Sound Like Gospel
Because you will never (theoretically) break your word, people will naturally begin to trust you more and more. This is a good thing because when you flip the situation around and you say that something cannot, or should not, be done, people will take your word for it.
Clients will take your word that you know best.
4. It’s Much Better Than The Alternative.
If you promise the stars and only deliver the moon, people will be disappointed, regardless how what you have objectively accomplished.
I’ve discussed at length in a previous essay entitled “How to Be Content No Matter What Happens in Life” that the main reason why people are not content is because they expect reality to be different to what it is.
Due to the influence of advertising, we think we all deserve to live a jet-set lifestyle with unlimited riches. That’s most probably not going to happen for most us, and some people resent this. You can ruthlessly eliminate this attitude from other people towards yourself by consistently over-delivering.
This ensures that their exceptions are less than the reality you will create. This is a welcome surprise for them as it rarely happens in life. You bring a special feeling to others around you, and they will want to interact with you.
5. Your Overall Perceived Value Increases.
If you become known as someone who often over-delivers, then your perceived value as a person increases. If you work hard, smart and are always on time, people will also make other assumptions about you, and they will probably be right.
They will assume that you are trustworthy, organised, worth helping and that you are generally someone worth keeping “in the circle”.
In an ideal world, business would be conducted in such a way that whoever offers the best product at the best price wins. Unfortunately, it’s much more nuanced than that. People will often pay more to work with people they like and trust, and they will often disregard the competition completely based on that.
So if you can make sure that people like and trust you because of the quality and precision on your previous work, then you’ve achieved a double whammy. This leads us nicely to the next point…
6. Repeat Business.
If you are realistic in what you offer in a given time-frame but often come up with something better during the “creative” stage of the project, then your customers will love you.
And guess what? When they have a new project, who are they going to go to? That’s right.. YOU!
Depending on the client, it’s often worth making your first project with them a “loss-leader”. You deliver something of far higher quality than intially demanded, while still keeping with the timeframe, of course. This is worth doing if you know that the client may be able to give you a lot of work in the future.
The saying “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression” rings ever true.
7. It Makes You Focus On Internal Goals, Not External Ones.
One way to always over-deliver is not to focus on the external goals but your own internal ones. Instead of just focussing on what the clients wants, think of the ideal scenario.
Think of the perfect product or service that one could deliver. Once you have that in mind, try and get as close to that as your resources allow you.
This will make sure that you are constantly pushing yourself to do better and better work and not just making sure you tick the boxes on the contract. This means you will never stagnate.
Instead of thinking in black and white terms of success and failure, try of thinking of things as experiments. Did you spend a week on a mock-up for a client and they didn’t like it? No problem, that’s actually narrowed down your selection and you may still be able to use elements on it in another project. A famous example of this is how Edison finally found the correct material to create a lightbulb filament. When he was asked about the failure, he said:
I didn’t fail three thousand times. I found three thousand ways how not to create a lightbulb
Granted, sometimes it’s difficult to get excited about a run-of-the-mill project, but remember that you can learn something from every situation and so you may be able to apply something from a boring project into something far more exciting, and profitable.
Remember, without struggle, without sacrifice, there would be nothing.
8. Makes You Look Prudent.
A few years ago in Sicily we had some builders do major renovations of our new apartment. It was quite high and there were going to be some problems in the work. How did the approach this? They visited our apartment, had a cigarette , a glass of wine, looked at the project, measured everything, they shook their head, say it’s virtually impossible due to x, y and z. Then they proceeded to do the whole job perfectly, delivered it ahead of time and with less disruption that imagined. We felt much better that they initially told us the truth that it was going be difficult, but then they still went ahead and delivered.
Personally, I am quite risk-averse and so I like to see others who don’t just say “yeah, yeah, it will be fine”. I like people who will look at a problem, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.
A Word of Caution
I will repeat what I said at the beginning: Whatever it is you do in life, you should become an expert in managing other people’s expectations.
Think about it, if you consistently under-promise and over-deliver, you will make it very difficult for yourself to manage other people’s expectations. Customers will be disappointed if you follow the contract to the letter and deliver everything as agreed with nothing extra.
Clients may also start expecting fast, cheap and great work as standard. Also, they might start to wonder if you are really incompetent at estimating delivery times. This particular argument can be easily countered by explaining your risk-averse model and how you plan for the worst-case scenario.
Another pothole to avoid is the technique of telling the client that what they went is too much, then selling them low and delivering what they originally wanted. [Most] People aren’t stupid and they will see through this.
As with everything in life, a small dose of moderation goes a long way.
The other problem with under-promising is that you might sabotage yourself by never even getting on the playing field. How about that other company that promises more, how are you going to stop them winning the contract? Y
You might find yourself over-promising too, it’s an easy line to cross and once it’s done there is very little you can do about it.
Clearly our promise must be damn awesome, and our work must be even better.
This leads us to the conclusion that you should only try this technique in areas that you know very well and where you’re confident in your abilities. Having a strong foundation, a no bullshit approach is key.
That’s exactly what life is about, always setting the bar higher and higher. That’s why less than sixty years after the invention of the airplane humans had landed on the moon.
Further Reading & Resources
- The Truth about Under Promising and Over Delivering
- The Problem with Under Promising and Over Delivering
- The Reason we should Under Promise and Over Deliver
- Business Honesty: Under Promise Over Deliver
- Under Promise and Over Deliver
- What Does it Mean to Under Promise and Over Deliver
- How to Under-Promise and Over-Deliver Your Way Out of Business