Under-Promise and Over-Deliver for Clients? BAD Idea (Episode 30) Trust Matters,The Podcast

For our 30th episode, a tech expert asks if it is a good idea to OVER-DELIVER for a client and exceed their expectations.

This week’s episode touches on our own reputation, business development, and managing client relationships.

To learn more about the topic of managing expectations, read this blog post:

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6 replies
  1. Franklin
    Franklin says:

    Charlie, you make a great case against underpromising and overdelivering, but I think you are oversimplifying a little. Your case is strongest when the promiser know with certainty what it takes to accomplish the task. When you give out Turkeys on Thanksgiving it is pretty straightforward. When you are solving a customer problem, you do not know how difficult the task will be until you have accomplished it. If you have lots of experience you have the basis for an estimate, but never certainty. You may think you are 90% done and then find out something that requires more additional work than you have already put in. In mathematical terms, problem solving is a long tail process. There is likely to be a minimum time required to solve a problem, but there is no maximum. Under these circumstances it would be foolish not to leave wiggle room when you set expectations. Even if you expect that it is most likely success will take a week, there is a significant chance it could take two or even three. And that is if you are doing work for a client, rather than with one. The single biggest unknowns in the effort to build a web site is the degree of client involvement, and the reasonableness of that client. For projects serving an organization it is vastly compounded by the number of players who may be involved, and how much any of them are going to choose to involve themselves.

    We also know that there are lots of people who self confidently make promises they have no basis for making. When overpromising and underdelivering is common, overdelivering is a lesser sin.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Franklin, I think you’re absolutely right about that. I plead guilty to over-simplification with respect to the uncertainties of life that you rightly point out.

      I’d suggest we reframe the dictum to something like, “Be truthful to the best of your ability, including addressing the unknowns. And when new data emerges, or things change, be willing to quickly revise your estimates based on what’s new.” And that includes a certain level of cushion to reflect uncertainties.

      I think the general point still obtains, namely don’t make a habit of over-padding; if you find yourself consistently over-performing your earlier estimates, consider carefully what that is doing to your credibility, and consider being a little more precise about your expectations.

      Does that make more sense?

      • Franklin
        Franklin says:


        I agree that is an improved formulation.

        One more thought, that I would like your take on. I pad more with new clients than with established ones, for several reasons. One of the variables in a project is client chemistry. Until a relationship is well established it is hard to know how well we work together, and also how demanding a client will be. Once I have a sense of how many iterations a project will take, or how perfectionist a client will be, which may be the same thing, the better I can estimate. And once I achieve client trust, I can give a broad range of possible cost. For some clients, for small changes, I don’t have to estimate at all. But with a new client, I find padding is essential. A good faith underestimate leads to an angry and untrusting client.

        • Charles H. Green
          Charles H. Green says:

          Franklin, I think it’s important to remember the forest in the midst of the trees.

          While there are an infinite number of situation-specific tunings to the range, to which side of the range ought to dominate, and to how broad the range might vary depending on various specifics, there is a general point here to be made. Perhaps it’s best stated this way:

          “Don’t manage expectations in a way that your client, if they were aware of those tunings, would perceive them to have been manipulative.”

          In other words: act as if your inner deliberations were printed on the front page of the NYTimes, and couch your expectations accordingly.

          I don’t think any reasonable client would object to the spirit of the examples you have adduced here. They could answer affirmatively to the question, “would you have done it the same way?” And they can even appreciate the spirit in which you intend them.

          Where it crosses the line is when a reasonable client, given full information, would perceive your adjustments as amounting to sand-bagging, with the sole intent being to manufacture a positive surprise.

          As with all such “rules,” their application to specific situations can’t be mechanical and rote. That said, it’s important to have such rules, and for them to be applied in varying situations so as to reflect the intent.

          And that intent is “don’t intentionally ‘lie’ about expectations (which ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ flirts with) with the primary purpose of creating an unlikely ‘surprise.'”


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