The paradox of promises in the age of word of mouth

Deliver on the tough stuff!

Thanks to Seth Godin for this excellent post.

The paradox of promises in the age of word of mouth

Word of mouth is generated by surprise and delight (or anger). This is a function of the difference between what you promise and what you deliver.

The thing is, if you promise very little, you don’t get a chance to deliver because I’ll ignore you. And if you promise too much, you don’t get a chance to deliver, because I won’t believe you…

Hence the paradox. The more you promise, the less likely you are to achieve delight and the less likely you are to earn the trust to get the gig in the first place. Salespeople often want you to allow them to overpromise, because it gets them through the RFP. Marketers, if they’re smart, will push you (the CEO) to underpromise, since that’s where the word of mouth is going to come from.

I have worked with someone who is very good at the promising part. She enjoys it. And when the promises don’t work out, she’s always ready with the perfect excuse. This is a great strategy if you have a regular job and the excuses are really terrific, but if you need internal or external clients, it gets old pretty fast. It certainly doesn’t lead to the sort of word of mouth one is eager to encounter.

Surgeons have this problem all the time. They promise a complete, pain-free recovery and work hard to build up a positive expectation, particularly for elective surgery. And the entire time you’re in bed, in pain, unable to pee, all you can do is hate on the doctor.

This is one reason why recovering from failure is such a great opportunity. If you or your organization fail and then you pull out all the stops to recover or make good, the expectation/delivery gap is huge. You don’t win because you did a good job, you win because you so dramatically exceeded expectations.

About Mark Deutsch

Small Business Sales & Marketing Expert | Best Selling Author | Speaker | Trainer | Disruptive Idea Creator
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2 Responses to The paradox of promises in the age of word of mouth

  1. Mark,

    This was a dose of reality. Thanks for posting it on Facebook, which is how I noticed it and was able to read it.

    After reading the message, I am beginning to evaluate opportunities where I may have dropped the ball or “overpromised and underdelivered”. The toughest part of this process is finding out who may have been impacted by my actions. What steps could I take to find this out and how do I “recover and make good”? Any suggestions?

    • mmdmba says:


      You & me both. I find that I really love to help others – and as a result, I tend to make the same mistake. I am working through this challenge by stopping making promises unless I can follow through within one day – that way it’ll be on the top of my list versus life getting in the way and then it slips off the radar. If I cannot get to a commitment within one day, I don’t openly commit to it – I make a mental note to help – and when I do follow-through on that mental commitment to myself, I look like a hero to the person I’m helping out, not a goat for lack of follow-through. Hope that helps – but it’s definitely a work in progress.

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