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.