Under-promise and over-deliver

For regular readers of my column, you may have heard me use the term “under-promise and over-deliver” in an offhand way from time to time. For me, the logic seems incredibly obvious and I just assume that everyone understands and subscribes to the concept. I always assumed that the challenge in the IT industry is not so much about believing in the concept but more about how to deliver the correct promise. I should have remembered a lesson I learnt back in primary school – when you assume, you make an ass of u and me.

I read an article recently that left me completely dumbfounded – dumbfounded enough to prompt me to write this article. I won’t mention the author’s name but I will paraphrase from the article. “While the short-term results look great, your clients might come to expect super-fast work. Suddenly the managing expectations idea backfires and your client sets very high expectations and then raises them each time you exceed your own self-set expectations. It’s not such a good idea to make promises at all.”

I was completely confused by this. If you don’t make promises to clients, they will constantly expect the service to be at least as good – if not a little bit better – than last time. The space-time continuum as we understand it today says that you can’t continually improve the service times forever. I well remember a client many years ago (before we started making promises) who complained to me about the poor service they had received. They were located on a remote mining site, they had old telecommunications infrastructure and had a failure of a router. From the time we found out about the failure, we sourced a second-hand router that matched the failed model, we configured the device identically and sent a technician on-site to swap over the device. I was impressed with our staff that all of this took only five hours (and the client was at a location that was an hour and a half drive away). The client’s complaint focused on the fact that the last time they needed some urgent work performed, we had completed the work within three hours so he was disappointed with the time taken this time. This was a classic case of us not promising anything to our clients and they then created their own expectations based on previous experience (which makes sense as it is all they have to judge it on).

Paint the alternative picture. If we had a standard agreement – or promise – with the client then all we have to do is to better that promise each time. For example, if we have an agreement that we will be on-site within a maximum of 4 hours plus travel time, then in both circumstances we have delivered above expectations – therefore delivering excellent service. It is by the very process of making a promise that we manage expectations and ensure that we have a standard to which we can all agree to measure our performance against. If we promise 4 hours and we arrive on-site in 6 hours then everyone can agree that is poor service. If we promise 4 hours and we arrive on-site within 2 hours then everyone can agree that this is above the level of service expected. You create problems when there is no definite agreed measure and the client then usually expects more and you want to deliver less.

As I said in the beginning, the trickiest part in IT is to work out what the deliverable promises are. If you get these right, all of your staff and clients know what the expectation is and then you just need to work on delivering above that.

For an extra gold star from your clients, then look for a few extra items you can throw in that are cheap but make a difference. Make a random phone call and tell a client about a new Internet plan that will reduce their cost but give them increases in their data allowance. For two weeks before Easter, each time you go out to visit a client, leave them a little Easter Egg. It is unexpected but nice – and costs next to nothing.

The crucial part to any level of service is ensuring the clients and the business knows the base level of expectation. Promises are the only way to achieve this. Well gone are the days of ‘best endeavour’ as it simply isn’t good enough.

And next time you hear a consultant try and convince you that it is not a good idea to make promises then tell them that the only companies that don’t make promises are companies that are so disorganised that they can’t possibly decide whether they have even kept their promises. The easiest way to delight your clients is simply to do what you say you are going to do.

Tell me if you make promises in your business at md@smallbusinessrules.com

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