Building Trust Worst Practice: Under-Promise and Over-Deliver


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The concept of under-promise and over-deliver sounds sexy, but if followed, it lowers your reliability (a key trust builder) in the customer’s eyes. For example, let’s say that you have told the customer that you will have his requested analysis to him in seven days. Let’s assume that the customer thinks this is reasonable because he believes it will take some critical thinking to deliver something of value on this issue that has perplexed him for months.

Now, let’s say you get the analysis to the customer in two days. On the outside, he will probably smile and say thank you for the fast turnaround. But on the inside, the customer might be thinking: That guy didn’t know enough about the issue to know how long it should take. I wonder about his experience? He must have just thrown something together to get it off his plate. I wonder about his commitment? Was he trying to impress me by under-promising and over-delivering? I see that as deceitful.

Those are not good thoughts, are they? So what will the customer probably think the next time you make a promise, for instance, doing something within 10 days? Probably something like this: Well, he hedged several days last time, so I guess I should expect his response in three or four days this time.

If you do get what you committed to do done in three or four days, you have confirmed that what you say is not what to expect. If you complete it in the 10 days stated, the customer will not know what to think. Either way, your reliability is damaged (and probably your credibility).

Let me reiterate: If you are trying to demonstrate reliability, do the job as close to what you described and as close to when you promised as you can.

There is one important exception to this, however. If you are dealing with something of high importance to the customer, for example, lives in danger, you ethically owe it to the customer to deliver the goods at the quality level that is appropriate as soon as possible.

Here is a Shining Example that demonstrates reliability: “I understand the criticality of your situation, and I promise to do what I can to bring resolution as soon as I can. As you know, this is complex and will involve several of our best and busiest people. I will start immediately after our conversation. As a realistic estimate, based upon my experience, this will probably take three to five days. However, if the stars align and the gears mesh, of course we will do it sooner. Tell me, how would you like me to update you on the status?”

Building Trust Best Practice: Do what you said you would do, exactly when you said you would do it.

This post was taken from my book, The Brilliant Service Professional: Building Trust, Creating Value, Having Fun.

James Alexander, EdD
James "Alex" Alexander has a doctorate in Human Resource Development, and after a dozen years in corporate life has spent more than two decades helping product companies build brilliant services businesses. Alex researches, publishes, advises, trains, and speaks on transforming good services organizations into high-performance services machines that create loyal customers, drive sales of services and products, and dominate the competition. He has written five research studies, four books, and over 150 articles, and has spoken, consulted, and trained in 25 countries.


  1. Hi Alex: your point about ‘under-promising’ and ‘over-delivering’ would make an interesting and valuable customer behavior study. I think it’s a stretch that a company or person that provides a quote faster than promised risks being perceived as deceitful. But I don’t question that the possibility exists. Still, I work in risk management, and that issue has never hit my radar.

    There are limits, however – which is where I think research could provide some interesting insights. Suppose a prospective client meets with a sales representative, detailing a problem that seems complex to the client. What would the client’s reaction be if, after listening to the symptoms, the rep immediately produced a detailed solution (including a price quotation) aimed at solving the issue? Would the client perceive a lack of thought or consideration, and would that diminish the likelihood of acceptance of the rep’s proposal? Would the rep be better off providing the illusion that he “worked on” a solution over the next three days, and provided the quote no earlier than 72 hours post-meeting? What would the outcome be if one of the variables were tweaked, for example, if the rep acknowledged the problem was complex, and that preparing a proposal would require additional time compared to “straightforward” proposals, and he would need the expertise of four colleagues or business partners?

    Would the rep incur a penalty whereby he lost credibility by producing the proposal early? And would that loss of credibility be significant enough to jeopardize his ability to close the deal? Without research, I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And even if there were research, I don’t know whether the results would be extensible to every industry or situation.

    In my business experience, however, I can’t think of an instance where improving on a delivery commitment was ever perceived negatively.

  2. Let’s say you promise to take your wife on her birthday for a Saturday night away at a nice hotel including dinner. And, let’s say you have been saving up for this moment for a while and you want to take her breath away. When you pull up at the hotel, it is not the Best Western she was expected; it is a Ritz-Carlton. And, knowing the specialness of this occasion, the concierge has upgraded you and your wife to a junior suite with a great view. Plus, dinner in the restaurant included a birthday cake and the entire wait staff signing to her. Your wife is going to think, “This jerk doesn’t have any sense of frugality and has wasted all this money when we could have stayed at the Best Western and we could gone to the Cracker Barrel next door for dinner Really? That does not sound like my wife’s likely reaction. She would not think about reliability; she would think about how special I made her feel.

    Reliability is a key trust building factor. But, sometimes you enhance the customers’ perception of you and your organization by finding ways to exceed expectations. Always doing exactly what the customer wants and expects–no more, no less–will not yield a memory of the experience anymore than you get up every morning thinking how amazing it is that the lights come on when you flip the light switch. Yet, your utility company has ensured your power is perfectly reliable.

    What if the scenario you described was not due to an inability to scope work or understand it’a complexity. What if instead it was due to your staff who volunteered to work around the clock just to amaze this customer (sort of like saving up for the Ritz). Customer relationships are filled with emotion, not just all logic. Most customers enjoy the glee of an occasional enchanting surprise just as much as a child on Christmas morning. And, sometimes delighting a customers can create such a great story they eagerly share, it makes it well worth going the extra mile to overdeliver.

  3. While early delivery might create some doubts in the customer’s mind in your example, and your admonition is appropriate, more often an ‘overpromise and overdeliver’ approach can have the opposite impact: exceptional performance to create a memorable, and positive, emotional response.

  4. Hi Alex, I agree with the premise that the client will start expecting results sooner than the deadline

    However, this will also impress apon the client that turnaround times with this partner are malleable, which is not sustainable long term

    I think underpromise and overdeliver should be an exception rather than the norm, used strategically to help your Client SPOC shine within his organization

    As Chip rightly puts it, an occasional enchanting surprise

  5. Hello James,

    I believe the best way to credit your point will be to follow Andrew Rubin’s response: some kind of research is needed to understand if there is any correlation between under-promise and over-deliver, as it is perceived and received by the customer.

    In my case, I’ve always sensed that, though some of my clients do feel excited when I deliver an SEO target behind schedule, they equally feel overcharged at the same time. Something like, it would’ve been done at a cheaper rate.

    So, a research of some sort will go a long way to guide people going forward.

  6. Hello Commenters and thank you for taking the time to post your thoughtful reactions. Andrew and Victor, I certainly agree that if would make an interesting research project–maybe some student considering a thesis or dissertation will take on the challenge! Michael and Chip, I totally agree that “going beyond” can have some very positive results. I align closely with Rohan’s comment about under promise and over deliver has its place, but maybe not as a SOP in most scenarios.

    Finally, I very much enjoyed Chip’s personal example which triggered a memory of my own. Back in the early days of my marriage, I made it a point to take my wife on business trips to locations I thought she would enjoy. We flew economy, but my wife never complained and always enjoyed our trips. Then one day, I wanted to surprise her and took her on a first class ticket on an international visit that was just over the top–she absolutely loved it! However, ever since, every time we fly any where her first question is “Are we flying first class?” It has cost a lot of money ever since! One most always be wary of re-setting expectations. Thank you again, and I hope others share their thoughts.

  7. I used to be bothered by this one too – other sales-folks were not following it enlarge; so in meetings they said they followed it, but when I talked to the clients one of the main dis-satisfiers was over promising or being the incorrect vendor to really deliver what the client actually was telling them they needed.

    So I always would give two timelines – the one that over promised to match up with what other vendors were saying; and the more plan-able .. put this into your work flowchart estimate. From my time decades ago with GM doing warranty claims; I often broke that down into nice steps to help my client look better.

    I won .. maybe not on the first quote or two .. but I won ALL the business from clients in three months because my relationship ended up being better for their time management. Proactive instead of basically quoting on a “reactionary basis”.


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