Trust Tip 38: Don’t Exceed Expectations

You hear it all the time: the imperative to “exceed expectations.” Sometimes the imperative gets compounded, as in “under-promise and over-deliver.” Sometimes it gets underlined, as in “always exceed expectations.”

Let’s be clear here. One who always exceeds expectations is a liar. He lies either in intentionally low-balling the expectations, or in exceeding his promise. Or both.

If you have another word for it, be my guest. But I think you can make a good case that “always exceeding expectations” is a form of lying.

To begin with, it requires stating something known to be not true. That means misleading with conscious intent. For another, the motives of the exceeder/liar are mixed at best. The main purpose of doing it seems to be to “get credit” for having done so; a self-centered motive, not a client-centric one.

But the real problem with exceeding expectations is that, like most lies, it erodes the trustworthiness of the one telling the lie; in particular, his credibility.

Tell enough lies, and they’ll call you a liar. Exceed enough expectations, and they’ll begin to consciously pad your projections and promises.

Do it on Wall Street with earnings projections, and eventually you’ll get caught in an unsustainable updraft of earnings projections factoring in greater and greater expectations. It’s the Christmas Turkey syndrome on steroids.

It’s a fool’s game. Your long-term trustworthiness is worth more than a flash of delight in a client’s eyes. Like any addiction, the surprise declines with regularity; we begin to expect the rabbit out of the hat, then demand it. Trustworthiness, by contrast, ages like fine wine.

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional surprise to the upside. But engineered surprises, delivered regularly, degrade trust. You can’t afford them.

Don’t exceed expectations: set them cleanly, and then meet them. Your customers will thank you.

13 replies
  1. Eric Brown
    Eric Brown says:

    Interesting idea.  When I was first starting out as a consultant, I wanted to ‘exceed expectations’ on every project I worked on…until I had a older and much wiser consultant told me that the following:

    "Expectations are set for a reason….you need to understand that or you won’t last long in this business"

    It took me a while to understand what he meant, but you have hit the nail on the head.

  2. Chui Tey
    Chui Tey says:

    This reminds me of what a manager of mafacturing told me. Sometimes when they are short of capacity, they outsource the jobs to other firms, and sometimes the quality comes out higher than they specify. They actually do not like this, because this can unfairly set the expectation in the customer’s mind that the quality is achievable consistently in their product line.

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Fascinating example Chui provides; I love examples that point out counter-intuitive things.  This not only supports the truth-not-exceed point of view, but reminds us that expected quality trumps high quality—at least for some buyers in some situations.

  4. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Agree that in circumstances like company performance, sales for the quarter, and manufacturing output, someone who "always" exceeds expectations is setting expectations too low (i.e., is sandbagging) or is letting someone else set the expectations too low without correcting them.  With respect to consulting work, I find that while I always try to set expectations about what I’m going to deliver – and how, when, and at what prices I’m going to deliver it – I find myself throwing in extras. The extras are seldom if ever marketing deliverables (which is what I do professionally), but tend to be "I know you didn’t ask for this, but here’s some advice" about something else that’s going on in their business. (Either it’s ‘free advice – they get what they pay for’ or maybe I should change my line of work!)

  5. Yvonne DiVita
    Yvonne DiVita says:

    I always try to exceed expectations. When I first read your post, I was nodding my head in agreement  but after I thought about it for awhile, I changed my mind. I am NOT lying by exceeding expectations. I am just going above and beyond because…that’s what I do. I set expectations for a project appropriately, and (like Maureen) throw in extras as the project gets moving. The extras exceed what I said I’d do – not because I want extra credit or more money or because they make me look better – I just think that when you bring emotions into it, and you should always bring emotions into it, you will exceed expectations as a matter of fact. Is being nice in today’s cold business environment seen as exceeding expectations? From your description, I’d say so. No, thanks. That kind of thinking belongs back in the old Dick and Jane world of the 20th century, where men were fond of repeating, "But, it’s just business."


  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Thanks Maureen and Yvonne for pushing the thinking; I quite agree with what the two of you are saying, so the question becomes not who’s right, but how to phrase it more precisely in a way that incorporates both.  Here’s a shot at it; please build on it.

    When I say "don’t exceed," I had in mind the core deliverable of a project—it’s going to cover X markets, Y products, with Q budget, in Z timeframe.  It seems to me that to systematically plan to come in under budget, ahead of time, covering more products and markets than originally promised is the kind of cynical policy that degrades trust.

    What I hear you talking about—and I agree, and try to do the same—is "exceeding" on other things: free advice, identifying other issues, offering perspective, investing time in some key relationships to help the client.

    To my mind, that is the essence of professionalism—going beyond the boundaries of the narrow contract, to help the client envision alternatives to the current reality.  Not to do that—to limit your entire potential value-added to the narrow scope of the project—is to abdicate your responsibility as a professional, in my opinion.

    It goes way beyond being nice (which I certainly didn’t intend to rule out), it gets into the sense of professionalism. 

    In that sense, I’d say we always should go well beyond the bounds of the contract.

    Maybe the way to put it is, don’t exceed the client’s expectations about the specifications of the contract, but do exceed  expectations about the  scope of the contract.

    How does that sound to you?

  7. Allen Holman
    Allen Holman says:

    This is really about managing customer expectations.

    Many people "under promise and over deliver" because it’s an easy way to ensure that you  come out on the positive side of those expectations.

    A better way is to be more open about the worst case scenario’s and what is involved in completing the project – additional workload, possible hangups etc.  Great communication wins again.

  8. Ian Chaprin
    Ian Chaprin says:

    I have two comments. The first is that we have a common theme — trust. When a company has the mission statement to "exceed expectations" (Google finds 120,000 such references), employees may resort to dishonest manipulations to achieve this effect. When customers, bosses, or employees realize that you deliberately understated your abilities in order to manipulate their feelings, then trust is destroyed and replaced with cynicism. Without trust, commercial and social transactions become slow and expensive.

    Maureen, Yvonne, and Charlie make good points about how you can build good-will and trust. Most of these are "soft", spontaneous deliverables that are probably impossible to specify in a contract, but they offer real value all the same. Although some people can’t handle honest discussions of risk and setbacks, I completely agree with Allen that clear communication wins.

    My second comment is that "exceeding expectations" doesn’t necessarily work. As Chui points out, people quickly adapt to your extra service, and now expect that. So, while I never stop pushing myself to innovate, the fact is that unless you have infinite funds and superhuman creative powers you’ll soon run out of new ways to exceed your past performance. Then what do you do for an encore?

    Besides, most customers may not even notice your efforts to exceed their expectations, as supported by some research.  However, if you screw up once they notice immediately.

    Rather than putting a promise to exceed expectations in the company mission statement, it is probably more realistic and useful to promise to do everything in your power to not screw up. When you do screw up, the trust and communication you’ve established can get you through. Achieve that and you’ll be doing better than most people expect.

  9. david
    david says:

    from GATTACA

    we strive to ensure that each meets his expectations.

    what if someone were to exceed their expectations?

    no one exceeds their expectations.

    no one?

    if they did it would simply mean that we failed to accurately guage their abilities in the first place.

     *its that simple.


  10. John
    John says:

    I just don’t agree. Expectations are what I am positive I can achieve for my client. That said, when I find myself with an unexpected resource or creative idea, I jump on the opportunity to go above and beyond what was promised. When I can pull that off–I find clients are enormously appreciative.

  11. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:


    I suspect we’re in violent agreement.  I too find, when I get an unexpected opportunity, I can create delight  The problem comes when you try to make the unexpected expected; when you try to always exceed expectations.  Or, as I said in the blog:

    There’s nothing wrong with an occasional surprise to the upside. But engineered surprises, delivered regularly, degrade trust.

    I probably should have added the word "always" to the title, as in Don’t Always Exceed Expectations.

    Thanks for the comment.

  12. Lame
    Lame says:

    You assume that the person exceeding expectations is also the person setting the expectations. Many times a client defines their expectations or needs and that provides an opportunity for exceeding because we can do more than they have defined or add in some extras to improve the solution.

    Seems like you are overgeneralizing to say exceeding expectations = lying.

    • Trusted Advisor
      Trusted Advisor says:

      Interesting point you make, thank you for paying attention to the conversation and contributing to it.
      My take on this would be that if the client has expectations below what you can deliver, the time to say so is the time of the sale or contracting. In other words, you should say to the client, “we can do better than that.”
      Saying so upfront lessens the chance of losing the sale in the first place, and it also sets you on a path for doing exactly what you say you will do, rather than trying to hold on and manipulate a gap between expectations.
      Or so it seems to me.

      Charles H. Green
      (from iPhone and possibly speech to text)
      Trusted Advisor Associates
      [email protected]


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