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!

, , , , , ,

Subscribe to the Blog

Sign up to receive an update each time a new blog post is published.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.