DON’T Always Exceed Expectations

Many of us go around repeating a mantra that we think is self-evidently correct: Under-promise and over-deliver, we say. Always exceed expectations.

There is a website ExceedAllExpectations.  Another website, HowTo.gov, tells governmental agencies to use metrics to exceed expectations. And as you well know, it’s a common mantra in business.

Not so fast.

Why Always Exceeding Expectations is a Bad Idea

Think this through. If you intentionally exceed a customer’s expectations, then you intentionally misled your customer about what to expect. If you make that a habit, then frankly, you’re a habitual liar.

Think that’s too strong? Think it through the next step. When a customer habitually gets more than they were promised, what’s such a customer to think?  That’s easy – that you’re constantly sandbagging the quote to make yourself look good. And they will naturally start to bargain with you about the expected results and/or the price.

When you make a habit of exceeding expectations, you are training your customers. You are training them to expect you to under-promise and over-deliver. And they are not dumb, they learn quickly.

You have trained them to doubt you, to suspect your motives, and to disbelieve what you tell them in the future.

Proof from the Market

In yesterday’s bi-weekly newsletter TrustedAdvice, I included a link to a video clip about this idea. (By the way, if you’d like to get TrustedAdvice via email, click here to subscribe).

Within minutes, I heard from two readers, with very interesting comments.

From Reader 1
I have learned this time and time again, but I want to please my clients, so I repeatedly try to exceed client expectations – only to find the clients coming back and demanding more and more.  The fact is, I set myself up for failure, as you cannot give more than 100%. I end up getting frustrated because then clients generally speaking don’t appreciate it when you do give them 100%, they just expect more and more of you and your time.

and Reader 2 adds another wrinkle
My company has exceeding expectations built into its DNA, a by-product of yours truly (though I am so much better now than I used to be). It has created more damage than you’d ever think. Not just in terms of clients expecting more for less, but in a shop that can never truly feel good about itself just for doing a good job, always feeling we could/should have done more.

“Always exceed expectations,” despite frequently coming from good motives, actually succeeds in destroying trust, with customers and employees alike.

So – don’t do that.

Instead, do what builds trust. Tell people exactly what to expect, and then deliver that. Period. After all, that’s how you develop a track record or being credible and reliable. That way your motives are never in doubt. That way you get known for being not only a straight shooter, but a particularly good estimator.

Basically, tell the truth. It’s always a better policy.

  • camaurer

    So true! The exceeded expectations become the new normal. So you end up in a deadly spiral. But it is easy to fall into the trap. It comes from the misconception to built a safety margin into you offerings.

  • Faith Fuqua-Purvis

    Absolutely agree. For years I have hated this phrase as it feels like you are incorrectly setting expectations and misleading about what is and is not feasible right from the start. Yes, occasionally you may exceed expectations, but it should not be the norm. It should be done intentionally, when it makes sense both for yourself and for the client.
    I do believe you should build a “safety margin” or contingency buffer. That’s just smart project management. On the occasion where something unexpected doesn’t occur, you wind up favorable, but you aren’t intentionally planning on it.

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