The Over-Promise Problem

This is not a rant.  It may seem like a rant at first – but I’m actually trying to draw attention to a growing problem I see among many companies.  It’s the “over-promise” problem.  Here’s what I mean:

I purchased several items from a multi-channel retailer that I often order from.  For years I’ve paid for a membership to their VIP program so that I could get free and speedy shipping.  Recently the company has been strongly promoting these benefits and their website is full of messaging about how VIP customers’ orders are “on their way to you within 2 hours from the exact time you order it!”  They’ve even branded the shipping program “WarpSpeed” and gave it a little logo.

They’re a local company and I usually receive my orders within a day or so, so when I hadn’t received my items four days after I placed my order, I sent an email to inquire about the status.

The first response I received ensured me my order would be on my doorstep soon and provided a FedEx tracking number.  There was no mention of any delay.

The tracking number didn’t work on the FedEx site, so I wrote again, asking about the delay and the tracking number.

The next response I received explained:

  • The VIP shipping guarantee applies to orders placed Monday – Friday 7am-7pm.  Translation:  Since you had placed your order on Sunday, only three days had passed.
  • Two of the items I ordered came from a non-local warehouse and “Although we had the package ready to go on 7/9, FedEx did not pick it up until 7/10 as FedEx does not pick up on Mondays.”  Translation:  It’s FedEx’s fault.
  • One of the items was shipped on time through the USPS and should be arriving shortly.  Translation:  We have no idea what the status is.
  • The last item shipped directly from the manufacturer’s warehouse and they provided an incorrect tracking number.  Translation:  You’re out of luck.

This response was utterly inadequate, incomplete, and unsatisfying.  But more than that, it was perplexing.   Why would a company brand, promote, and message the heck out of a shipping program that produced such underwhelming results?  Why set itself up for failure?

To me, this seems the classic case of over-promising and under-delivering.  Many companies do it:

  • Restaurants say they’re open until 10 but they start closing the kitchen at 9:30.
  • Packaged food makers put their products in large packages but the contents are significantly smaller.
  • Customer service departments record a hold-time message that says my call is important but they keep me waiting for a long time.
  • Hotels say check in is at 4 but most of their rooms aren’t ready until 6.
  • Retailers post a huge “everything on sale” sign but then don’t offer the discounts on their most desirable products.

More and more companies seem to be making promises they can’t keep.  Why do they set people up for disappointments?  Why underwhelm when they could overwhelm?

Zappos is a company that gets it.  Its website offers several shipping options, but sometimes when a customer selects standard shipping, the company decides to surprise her with a free upgrade to overnight shipping.  It’s truly a delight when your product unexpectedly arrives on your doorstep less than 24 hours after you ordered it.   I know it’s made me a loyal customer of theirs.

More companies need to follow suit. They need to figure out that when you over-promise, you’re bound to under-deliver and lose customers’ trust and respect.  But, if you under-promise and over-deliver, you just might gain a customer for life (not to mention a brand advocate whose going to tell her entire social network!)

So, here’s a code I suggest companies consider operating by:

  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • If you have to use asterisks and fine print to qualify your promise, don’t make it.
  • Treat your “VIP customers” like they really are very important to you.
  • Take responsibility for the entire experience – make sure your promise is kept by your partners.
  • Keeping only part of your promise is breaking it.
  • It’s better to be under-estimated – then you can “surprise and delight.”
  • Tell the truth.

What would you add to the list?  Comments open!

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  • I believe the over-promise / under-deliver problem is a symptom of the disconnect between systems and marketing and evidence of a top-down approach.

    The question gets asked: “What can we promise that will get customers? …I know, “WarpSpeed” delivery!” The better question is “What are we best at, and how can we delight the customer every time.?”

    • deniseleeyohn


  • Dale Halvorson


    I think you’ve touched on two very different issues that are both important. Your story is about a company that has abdicated the experience to another company and is retaining no accountability. The rapid fire list are all about things that companies have complete control over. Both are routed in integrity.

    I can empathize with the story 100%. It’s a huge problem in our household. One ‘order’ is placed and it has turned into a game to see when/if it’s going to arrive. No one will accept accountability. Not a great expression but in my world people refer to is as ‘one throat to choke…’ In the end we get the level of service that we accept. For us our cognitive dissonance has resulted in turning the delivery schedule into a game. The odds of us moving away from our provide are really, really slim largely because there is no obvious alternative.

    What will be really telling is this holiday season. The wheels have been coming off of this truck for a while and the problems have been getting worse. The coming tsunami could be catastrophic.

    There are companies that understand this. In-n-Out Burger has sued Doordash to try and keep their product off of Doordash’s list precisely because they have no control over the condition of the product when it’s handed over to the customer.

    • deniseleeyohn

      thanks for your comments, dale — it’s funny (and sad) that your family has made a game out of delivery arrivals. yes, this season will be most revealing…thanks again.

      • Dale Halvorson

        To close this window, the big A actually seems to have gotten back on track. I can’t remember the last time they swung and missed. Promised dates are being met almost 100% of the time. (Although there was one driver that just couldn’t find the package in his vehicle – I watched him search everywhere – and seconds later I got a vague ‘package delayed’ notification…)

        • deniseleeyohn

          thanks for the update, dale! all’s well that ends well??