The Infamous Overpromise: The Most Avoidable Driver of Bad Customer Experiences

overpromise kills the customer experience

The Infamous Overpromise: The Most Avoidable Driver of Bad Customer Experiences

There is a subtlety to properly managing expectations that some people just don’t understand.

Every competent dog groomer, auto mechanic, barber, plumber, electrician, etc. that we’ve ever stopped using could not manage expectations properly. These otherwise well-meaning and (as we wrote) competent tradespeople continually and needlessly overpromised and underdelivered.

Now read that paragraph again. These people were competent in their respective crafts. We’ll add that in some cases they were among the best we’d used. However, in all cases, we stopped using their services because they repeatedly failed to meet the expectations that they themselves set.

Their constant overpromising was unnecessary and ultimately led to their losing our business.

Their business (at least with us) died via a series of self-inflicted wounds. Moreover, unnecessary (as if there were any other kind) self-inflicted wounds. This is the frustrating part about overpromising: it’s unnecessary.

Does your team (especially your team on the frontline) understand the destructive nature of overpromising? If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance they do not; hence, there are a few axioms related to the customer experience that are worth teaching everyone at your company:

  • The number one cause of a bad customer experience is misaligned expectations.
  • Overpromising intentionally creates misaligned expectations.
  • Overpromising is always unnecessary.


Why are some people prone to overpromising?

Within your organization you likely have employees and managers who routinely overpromise others in the company (often those above them in the organization chart) when asked for certain deliverables. The most common reason for this is they believe that’s what the other person wants to hear, and they have every intention of rolling up their sleeves and meeting the high bar they just set for themselves.

Of course, if they met this new high bar, these wouldn’t be overpromises, would they?

In these instances, these people aren’t intentionally lying; they just have little self-awareness and almost no recollection of the self-imposed deadlines they’ve missed in the past. They’re ignorant to their inability to prioritize, maintain schedules, or meet deadlines. For most of the competent dog groomers, auto mechanics, barbers, plumbers, & electricians we’ve ever stopped using, their similar ignorance is likely the cause of their unnecessary overpromises.

There’s other ignorance at play here; that is, they’re ignorant to the damaging effects of the infamous overpromise and they’re ignorant to the fact that overpromising is always unnecessary.

Overpromising is always unnecessary.

The Need to Please

Beyond ignorance, there is another reason people make promises they will not keep: they feel a need to please everyone.

This is especially true when the overpromise is made to a customer. Whether the employee believes that’s what the customer wants to hear, they have a desire to be liked or accepted, they think this solves everything (for now), or all the above, breaking your frontline employees out of this habit is critical if you expect to become a CX juggernaut.

The math on this is ridiculously simple (even to someone prone to overpromising) when we look at it from an outside perspective:

Customer is in a hurry to buy widgets + store is out of widgets + next shipment date is unknown x employee tells customer new widgets should be in by Thursday = Customer experience nightmare on Thursday.

In the equation above, there are multiple points that could cause a poor customer experience (the customer is in a hurry, the store is out, the in-stock date is unknown); however, the poor experience is multiplied by the employee’s overpromise.

In this case, the employee may have assumed that since widgets usually arrive on Thursdays, it would be fine to create that expectation for this customer. More likely, the employee was trying to placate the customer today by pushing the really bad news out until Thursday.

The employee’s reason is unimportant since overpromising is always unnecessary.

The problem with the employee’s overpromise, of course, is that the customer might have decided to secure the widgets elsewhere if they’d received correct information. In this case, the employee would’ve likely felt some immediate, albeit minor, displeasure from the customer, and the store would’ve lost this sale.

Of course, the customer (being in a hurry) would likely voice some minor displeasure at having to wait until Thursday anyway. When Thursday arrives without a new shipment of widgets, the customer’s minor displeasure could easily turn to anger. The employee would hear about it (again) from the customer, and the store could easily lose not just this sale, but future sales as well.

I Don’t Know

The easiest solution to overpromising is, of course, stop.

Instead, try sharing accurate information with customers. This will manage expectations properly even though it might cause some initial CX pain. Ultimately, the ability to always keep your word will undoubtably drive the long-term gain you’re striving for if your goal is to become a CX juggernaut.

But what if we don’t have accurate information? For example, what if we’re not sure if the Thursday deliveries will include the widgets the customer wants?

Then tell them this. Letting the customer know that you don’t know, or that you don’t have an answer, or that you’ll have to check with someone else and get back to them, all lead to superior customer experience outcomes when compared to an overpromise.

Let’s be honest here, an overpromise is essentially a lie, isn’t it?

When a customer feels lied to, their already agitated state can turn angry. And while an honest, simple “I don’t know” won’t mollify everyone, it will avoid unnecessary escalations later.


Surely, you’ve heard the expression “underpromise, overdeliver.”

You’ve probably heard it so much; it’s beginning to sound a little cliché. Don’t let what you believe to be overuse of a saying make you miss the point. You cannot overuse this expression. These nine simple syllables speak volumes of truth; and they should be a guiding principle for driving great customer experiences with your brand.

In the Managing Expectations post, we introduced an exercise called Our Service is an 8. In that exercise, we had you imagine what the CX impact would be if the customer expected a 7, and you delivered an 8.

Your 8 service was perceived as outstanding to the customer; because when you deliver more than the customer expects, you also deliver a great customer experience. Underpromising – that is, setting their expectations a little below what you believe will be the outcome – allows you to overdeliver.

Moreover, if you change their expectation to a 7 when you strongly believe you’ll deliver an 8, you’re not punished if the situation changes, and you ultimately deliver a 7. In these cases, you’ve still provided a good customer experience because you managed their expectations and kept your word.

The Small Downside

Managing expectations and keeping their word are two of the four things customer-first companies routinely do that others do not. While overpromising clearly destroys both, underpromising is not necessarily a panacea.

There is a small downside risk to underpromising that is worth mentioning. When you routinely underpromise, there is a chance your underpromises could become further removed from reality. If this happens, you run the risk of losing business (for example, when a customer simply cannot wait three weeks for something that could arrive in one) or regular customers becoming numb to your underpromises (for example, if your cashiers routinely tell customers something will take fifteen minutes, yet you routinely deliver in under five).

As we stated previously, this is a small risk; and its existence shouldn’t dissuade you from planting your team firmly in the underpromise camp.

Keeping Your Word

If you’re like most people, you have just one choice for home electricity service. There is no competition; therefore, no matter how disgruntled you are, you cannot switch power companies like you can for virtually everything else you buy. In Steve’s neighborhood, they have Avista. Good, bad, indifferent; Avista provides electricity and natural gas service to homes in the neighborhood.

Because of bad weather, Avista had two major power outages in the area during a recent summer. However, unlike outages in the past, Avista didn’t leave Steve in the dark (pun intended). Instead, they managed his expectations and, more importantly, they kept their word. (Prior to these instances, it’s doubtful anyone ever accused Avista of managing expectations or keeping their word. They were as bad as any utility company at these customer-first traits.)

Most companies could take lessons in managing expectations and keeping their word from Avista. Yes, a utility company that enjoys a monopoly has become an example of how to manage customers’ expectations and how to keep their word. They did this by simply underpromising.

During both outages – each lasting longer than a couple of hours – a quick check of the Avista mobile site showed the areas affected and an estimated time when customers could expect to have their power restored. And in both cases Avista had the repairs completed well before their self-imposed deadlines, thus exceeding their customers’ expectations – expectations Avista set or reset by their underpromise. More importantly, their underpromises allowed them to keep their word.

Is Avista better at restoring power today than in the past? We have no idea. That’s not what matters. What matters is they are better at successfully managing customer expectations and keeping their word by simply underpromising.

Communication is Key

To piggyback a bit on the last post about improving customer communication, Avista’s mobile site does a great job of providing real-time communication to their customers. This is the key. If the website didn’t show the outage, he would assume Avista was unaware of the problem. He and his neighbors might jam their phone lines trying to report the outage. If their site didn’t provide an estimated time of completion, he and his neighbors would grow angrier by the minute as they waited for the power to return.

As was clear from the US Bank example in the communications post, it’s not just customer (external) communications that are important to managing expectations; the internal communications at a company can be just as critical when service is disrupted. Clearly, Avista has a system in place that allows internal communication (from their field repair teams, for example) to flow to the customer-facing website; keeping customers informed and managing their expectations. (And keeping Avista from having to staff a call center with hundreds of customer service reps.)

By clearly communicating an underpromised expected repair time to their customers, Avista makes it easier for their teams to keep their word.

This is the eighth post in a series of excerpts from Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience, a book written for everyone in any organization that has customers. That is, it was written for those in both the public and private sector; and for everyone in these organizations. From the frontline, customer-facing employees to the CEO and board of directors.

Each chapter in Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience concludes with Key Learnings and Chapter Exercises to make certain you and your team take the efficient path to becoming Customer-First. As you’ll learn in this ridiculously short book, building and maintaining a CX juggernaut isn’t hard… in fact, it’s ridiculously simple. Buy it now on Amazon!