DON’T Always Exceed Expectations

Like most people, I enjoy a good positive surprise. Whether that’s something as simple as getting an unexpected discount at the grocery store, snagging a last-minute table at a popular restaurant, or being surprised by having the driver in front of me pay for my toll – it’s all good.

But when it comes to business – good old fashioned straight-forward honesty can do more for building your reliability than can exceeding expectations. How’s that? Read on.


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,, tells governmental agencies they ought to incent (suborn?) performance beyond expectations. And as you well know, it’s a common mantra in business.

Well – 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 in the first place. In plain English – you lied. And if you make that a habit – as in “consistently exceed expectations” – then 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 – they’ll think 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 a recent issue of my 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.

This post first appeared in Trust Matters. 
5 replies
  1. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    This is a terrific post. It really hits at two important issues: 1) That just because tag lines are not a substitute for strategy and just because they are frequently repeated doesn’t make them right! and 2) Building trust is all about having clearly shared expectations and delivering on what you promise. Thanks. Rich


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