Under Promise, Over Deliver

Under Promise, Over Deliver

Tom Peters

With competition heating up in every market, firms are forced to
promise the moon to get an order, especially that first order. Right?

Wrong. With an explosion of competitors, many of them new and without
track records, reliability, rather than overly aggressive promises, is
the most valuable strategic edge, especially for the mid- to long-
haul. While getting faster at responding to customers is imperative,
living up to commitments has never been worth more.

A survey of banks supports this point. Banks with lower customer
ratings tend to respond, for instance, to an early morning customer
query with, "We'll be back to you by noon," or "We'll be back to you."
Then they get back to the customer at, say, 3 p.m. The top rated
banks, such as Morgan Guaranty Trust of New York, reply, "We'll be
back to you by close of business today" -- and they do -- at 4 p.m.,
for example.

The paradox: The poor performers, in the customers' eyes, frequently
"out performed" the better performers -- that is, they got the job
done first. Yet customers rate low the banks that fail to keep
promises (3 p.m. instead of noon) or that are vague ("We'll get back
to you"); customers unfailingly prefer slightly less aggressive
promises -- that are honored.

I experienced the same phenomenon at a hotel and a service station
recently. Although the hotel's menu promised that room service would
start at 6:15 a.m. when I called at 6:20 a.m., I was subjected to a
tinny, tape-recorded message saying, "Room service will be open at
6:30." Though I'm a morning coffee devotee, the 15 minutes is no big
deal, in absolute terms. But the delay was infuriating in light of the
promise; it made me perceive I was getting rotten service --
and it was compounded by the hotel's high price tag.

Similarly, when I ordered an unusual-sized tire from a local service
station recently, I was surprised and delighted to be assured (twice)
that I could pick it up just four hours later. I was busy then, so I
said I'd return the next morning and left that station feeling much
better about its unusually high gas prices, which appeared to be
offset by its service responsiveness.

I rearranged the next morning's schedule, and popped in at 9 a.m.
To my dismay, the tire hadn't even been ordered -- and my morning was
shot. One more shattered expectation. And once again the issue was the
perception, not the absolute: I had originally expected getting the
tire to take a couple of days, at least, and had been more than
willing to wait.

Some intriguing evidence from the health-care environment bears on
this issue. Surgical patients who are told, in detail, of the nature
of post-operative agony recover as much as one third faster than those
left in the dark.

Suppose a patient is told that she or he will suffer severe shortness
of breath for four or five days following surgery. Even if the
symptoms persist a bit longer than average, the patient is prepared to
deal with it. The uninformed patient panics -- sensing that the
operation was a failure. No amount of post-operative explanation helps
("They're lying -- I'm dying"). Even if the uninformed patient's
shortness of breath lasts less than the norm, his or her consternation
frequently sets back overall recovery.

We all seek predictability. In fact, the more uncertain, frightening
and complex the situation (such as today's competitive scene), the
more we grasp for predictability. That's why I'm not at all surprised
at the bank study or health-care findings.

As much as we may relate to such frustrating, unkept promises when we
are on the receiving end (patient, individual consumer, commercial
purchaser), we tend to underrate the point when we plan our own firm's

I've recently been with groups from two fine companies (building
products, packaging materials), both renowned for top-flight product
quality. Both have been working with customers to learn how they are
perceived in the marketplace. Both have been surprised that their
renowned quality has been less a focus of attention than their good,
or occasionally bad, record for responsiveness. That is, despite
quality that is demonstrably superior to their chief competitors',
more than 80 percent of the customer feedback harps on responsiveness
and reliability. Quite frequently, "second-rate firms" (as their
competitors see them based upon relative quality) have received high
overall marks -- because they have unfailingly met their commitments.

"I can't get over it," one executive pondered. "I expected them to
talk about various quality enhancements, including some problems we've
had with a new product. Instead, they went on and on about a small,
late order here or an especially responsive act there."

Quality is important, to be sure. So is absolute response time. And
price. But at the top of most lists, by far, is keeping your word.
With uncertainty rising, if you "under promise, over deliver," you
will not only keep the customers satisfied; you'll keep the customers.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.