Promising and Delivering – The Trust Equation

One of the better phrases to come out of the strategic planning sessions I’ve conducted over the years was included in the participant clients’ Values Statement.  It stated: “We will under promise and over deliver.”  That performance promise made an impression on me then and still does today.  It clearly conveys as a corporate value that this company will not only will do what it says it will do but will always strive to exceed the promises made to everyone – clients, vendors and employees.  Executing on that proposition builds trust in all relationships.  Not executing removes it.

Think about the idea first from a personal perspective.  How easy is it to continue to have a relationship with someone who regularly fails to fulfill their commitments?  Conversely, what is our response to people who regularly under promise and over deliver?  The currency accumulated or lost in the promising and delivering equation is trust.

In this article, I’d like to examine the impact of both sides of the promising and delivering equation in business.  The promises we make and how we deliver on them profoundly impact all of our stakeholders – customers, vendors and employees.  The balance we achieve between them determines the strength of the partnerships we forge.  How we deliver on the promises we make either builds virtually unbreakable bonds or leaves us looking for ways to disconnect – because we either trust or do not trust those at the other side of the table.

Think of what “under promise and over deliver” means to you when you do business with anyone.  If a vendor promises something to you in January, but they call in December and ask, “Your product / service is ready early, would you like delivery?”  Or, the value it can have to a small business owner pressed for cash when you inform them you’ll try to pay by the end of the month and get the check out a couple of weeks early.  Or, the impact it would have on employees when you tell them you hope to provide a bonus of $X at the end of the year and there happens to be enough money left over to up the bonus to $2X.  In each case, you have the opportunity to “amaze” your stakeholders by over delivering on your promise.

Each interaction you have with your stakeholders helps build a perception (part of your brand) in their hearts and minds.  How much do they trust you?  How do they talk to peers about you as an employer, customer or supplier?  Your willingness to live up to your promises and ability to surpass them (or not) serves to either establish a cushion that protects you in those rare cases where you might stumble in performance or eats away at the strength of the relationship so whoever your stakeholders are wait for the opportunity to leave your fold and find another partner.

The value of “under promising and over delivering” most clearly impacts customers and our relationships with them.  When we’re able to give more than what’s expected in price, quality or service we add to our value proposition in the mind of our customer.  This was evidenced when one of our clients stood up at one of our user group meetings and jokingly said about one of our consultants, “John is such an important part of our business, I’m writing him and Advisa into my will”.  That’s the impact of under promising and over delivering.  His business was down 50% at times in the previous year, but he found ways to remain a client.  John solidified his relationship to the client with an almost unbreakable bond – the one that comes from surpassing promises.

And remember, one company’s customer is another one’s vendor.  The impact of the equation is just as clear but on the receiving rather than the giving side of the equation.

The impact here is visible in almost all of the Strategic Planning sessions we conduct.  One of the analysis points in the SWOT we do is vendor relationships.  Invariably the discussion turns to suppliers that are perceived as threats because they over promise and under deliver.  The client generally has good reasons why they’re still doing business with the supplier.  The vendor is the only one geographically viable because of shipping costs.  Or, they have a long-term contract that can’t be broken.  Or, there is an interconnection (dies held on site, proprietary formulas, etc.) that makes it difficult to sever the relationship.  Or, the vendor has a proprietary product that the clients’ customers’ want.  Part of the strategy developed inevitably involves looking for alternatives.  Trust has been abrogated and the way out for the buyer is to try to find another vendor – if and when they can.

The most insidious place for the promise / delivery equation to falter is with employees.  As leaders we have to make commitments every day about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.  Some of that can be written in our Values Statements.  More is conveyed in our strategic plan.  Every day we communicate about our operations to our people in ways that promise some kind of activity.  Do we strive to deliver each and every time?  Are we aware of the impact of over delivering and under delivering?  Promises not kept to employees present the first, best and most common reason for disengagement.  Under delivering on promises reduces and over time removes trust.  People can’t view their work as any more than a job for collecting money if they can’t trust management.  As a consultant, I’ve seen too many cases where employees openly groused about how management didn’t follow up or through on promises – simply waiting for 5:00 to roll around so they could escape.

If or when you regularly over promise and under deliver, you set the stage for all of your stakeholders to look at strategic alternatives to interactions with you.  They use someone else’s services.  They find another vendor.  They quit.  Over promising and under delivering is simply a strategy for failure.

Be careful of what you promise.  Saying something today to make someone happy when you’re not sure you’re going to be able to deliver on it tomorrow is never a good thing.  Betting on the come in making promises to please will come back to bite you with future displeasure and lost trust from you’re stakeholders.  Take to heart the phrase mentioned in the first paragraph, “We will under promise and over deliver.”  It’s a good strategy for both life and business.  If we all worked to follow it, life would be both much easier and more pleasant.  So would our jobs.