Why You Shouldn’t Underpromise and Overdeliver

“Underpromise and overdeliver.”

Have you ever heard this brief bit of business philosophy at work? It has to do with consciously managing the expectations of your clients and customers. The idea is that you set a comfortable scope and timeline for your service, and then “wow” them by delivering the results ahead of time and under budget.

The question is: Is it a good way to build relationships with your customers?

While the short-term results of “underpromising and overdelivering” look great, your clients might come to always expect super-fast, super-cheap work from you. Suddenly, the whole “managing expectations” idea backfires completely; your client has learned to set them very high, and raise them each time you exceed your own self-set expectations.  You’re caught up in a mess that you created.

It’s not such a good idea to underpromise, overpromise, or – perhaps – make promises at all. To use another common work expression; maybe “honesty is the best policy.”

What do you think?

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Peter is Vice President of Digital Marketing at an investment holdings company in Washington DC and Co-Founder at True North.


  1. daylightgambler on the 15th June

    I think it is a fine balance – from my personal experience exceeding your clients expectations leads to loyalty and a lot of further work.

    I guess the key is to make sure that you give yourself sufficient scope in your original project plan and pricing to exceed expectations without leaving yourself over worked and under paid.

  2. Heather on the 15th June

    I agree – I have one client who I began working with during a slow time. That meant my turnaround time was really quick. She began to expect it, even though it wasn’t the standard or what I had quoted. Better to be realistic than over or under provide.

  3. Martín on the 15th June

    It depends on the client, the context and the situation. I think it could work if you use it with a not very convinced client and you want give him a surprise.

    It isn’t a good idea if you use it in all situations because, as you said, the client will learn to expect more than you promised.

    Good post!

  4. Cedric Hohnstadt on the 15th June

    I think it’s a question of degree and consistency. I think if you strive to build a reputation of turning things in a little early and a little under budget you will be in great shape overall. But if you turn things in super early and way under budget then yes, you do run the risk of clients expecting it all the time.

  5. I have no experience regarding this matter.

    Although, it was very interesting to read the post and the comments. But I still cannot decide which side to choose!

  6. Dave on the 16th June

    This is a fair point, and I’d never thought to question the original philosophy.

    Honesty is the best policy. Sometimes a project is risky, since there are too many unknowns, and you should get that out up front. Other times it’s a regular job you day ion day out, and barring an emergency, you know how long it’s going to take.

    I’ve recently been on the other side of the fence and work was delivered very early after a lot of um’ing and ah’ing about schedules. I might have actually felt happier if it had turned up when we planned, but that’s down to the pain in setting the original schedule.

  7. Underpromise on the 26th November

    I’m firmly on the side of underpromise. A promise is easy to make, and people are greedy for them. Of course, once you make a promise you are held to it by other people, irrespective of how realistic your promise was.

    Whether you underpromise or overpromise, you will develop a reputation for how quickly or on budget or reliably (or whatever metric is important in your field) you deliver. If for whatever reason you mess up and it takes longer, then they will re-evaluate their expectations of you (and re-evaluate them after you come in again under budget or time or whatever with your next transaction). They may be disappointed.

    However, if you have underpromised you are safe – “Look, did I promise to get it done earlier? No. All I can do is give a date and if you choose to rely on an earlier date that I did not agree to, then I can’t help you out there, I’m really sorry.”

    If you have attempted to promise what you typically deliver: “Um, well, I’m very sorry your production line is sitting idle for several days now, but please try and overlook the tens of thousands of dollars it has cost you and consider me for future business.”

    Which approach will have better long term business and get more business via referrals?

  8. steve on the 24th May

    I struggle with this whole under promise premise. Not only for the points the writer illustrated, which only considers the project management side of the equation. It does not take into consideration actually making the sale or out bidding your competition. If I went around under promising what impetus would there be for someone to use us, unless we had sufficient time to earn a reputation, etc? I also think that the client, no matter how excited to get the goods early, will be forced to question your ability to estimate, plan, schedule, whatever. I like to deliver what I promised and if I can give a little more then great, but only a little.

  9. Andrew Keir on the 12th July

    Personally I think you’ve interpreted the saying slightly wrong.

    It’s not about promising a deadline of a month and then furiously working into wee hours of the night to be finished in a week.

    It’s about promising a result in a given period of time, and delivering it a little better, and a little sooner than promised so clients are happy, not just satisfied.

    “It’s not such a good idea to underpromise, overpromise, or – perhaps – make promises at all.”

    You’re going to need to agree (make a promise) to deadlines. You can’t tell clients they’ll have it sooner or later, or eventually…

    • Patrick on the 3rd July

      I couldn’t agree with you more – having read the article, I felt the writer had lost the purpose of under promise and over deliver, it is all about balance and managing expectations. Any one of us who has been on the receiving end of a great sales experience either personally or with a sub-contractor should know what the feeling is when something extra has been delivered that separates you from the competition!

  10. Cindy on the 7th September

    Applied to a product-based business, underpromise/overdeliver is a great way to get people talking about your brand. I could see how this may backfire for a service-based company, but if you make products it should be a given if you want to succeed.

  11. Jarzan on the 3rd October

    Dear Peter, or who ever,

    I see Your point, but, and there are two opinions, if You should start or stop listening after the but. That is one of the reasons I have removed the word “but” from my dictionary. But not saying the but….

    Anyway, IMHO:

    Underpromising is part of the whole plan. Do not marketroid things by publishing: “We’ll beat the s*t out of the competition using this unbelievably bright never-scratch-gorilla-3-square2 glass and super-hyper-amoled-LCD display”. And if things like this “leak out”, don’t treat consumers as idiots! Every detail that “leaks out” is part of the “selective marketing”. We did that already in 1999 (never worked with Nokia, Motorola or other similar entity).

    Overdelivery is part of the delivery. You have pre-orders and trusted partners. Make sure that they get the volume of the products that MATCHES the demand. If there is 10% of customers wanting, what ever the prices is, NooglePhone 96, just make sure that if you have promised, you will be able to deliver. It’s a bad excuse to explain: “Sub-contarcotors did not meet their promise”.

    IMHO: An atitude, that do not try “underpromise/overdeliver” is a WEAK opinion. You don’t need to over over over promise. But if you’re good, and you have a good track record, the underpromise/overdeliver TRACK RECORD can be used to downscale things when needed. E.g. “We are certain, that the market will shrink. Thus we will not be able to deliver same numbers as Qx/previous-year, BUT we will still deliver the strongest numbers in the market”.

    Company should always:
    1. Be realistic (e.g. not promise when not able to deliver)
    2. Deliver more than publicly promised
    3. learn learn and learn more…
    4. Be humble and proud at the same time. Focus: Customers.

    I have been there. done that, in every role I have ever had. Within the company, there must be a team who “shares the pain” with customer. Good companies put The best of The Best to that position, the failing companies don’t even care.

    I have had a BAD experience from good people and good product groups, who did not deliver the “internal information”, such as “not ready for a shipment”, while the marketroid-machinery sold hotter than red. The problems could have been avoided…. Never let that happen, again!

  12. StHelens Weddings on the 9th December

    There are lots of ways to over deliver. Providing things earlier than promised is only one of them. How about providing more for the same price, or contacting the client after delivery to ensure everything is OK? What this actually means will differ from industry to industry. But in the end it boils down to providing customer service that exceeds the customers expectations – now what can be wrong with that?

  13. Kryz on the 8th December

    I just bumped into this post, and frowned a bit when I read this. There are exactly 3 ways of doing business:

    1) Underpromise and overdeliver
    2) Do exactly as promised
    3) Overpromise (and thus underdeliver)

    Option 3 is obviously not acceptable. Never promise more than you can do. Which implies that you know very well what you can do, and if you don’t, it’s going to be hard doing business with you, simply because you don’t know what you can promise, and what use is that to a customer?

    Option 2 is arguably the best option. Knowing exactly what you can do, agreeing with the customer and delivering on time, as expected, with exactly what the customer requested (and not what you think the customer requested, but actually to the customer’s satisfaction – this is key!).

    But option 2 is not easy. There are lots of variables that make it hard to deliver on time on spec, and you probably don’t even have full control of all the factors involved (and I’m not talking natural disasters and terrorism here, I’m just talking employees getting sick and suppliers not meeting their deadlines). So, to be on the safe side, you underpromise. Just slightly, to always have that margin. But if possible, you then speed up, or give the customer product features which were “nice to haves”, but not necessarily part of the deal.

    Now, your criticism of this method is:

    “While the short-term results of “underpromising and overdelivering” look great, your clients might come to always expect super-fast, super-cheap work from you. Suddenly, the whole “managing expectations” idea backfires completely; your client has learned to set them very high, and raise them each time you exceed your own self-set expectations.”

    This may sound realistic, but the problem described in this paragraph is not underpromising and overdelivering – it’s not communicating clearly to a customer. The customer will expect more? Great. But the customer isn’t going to get more. Because you keep promising the way you have, and maybe the customer will get a bit more, or get it a bit faster, but in the end, YOU know YOUR business, and do not let the customer dictate your promise. If you fail to make that clear to your customer, you let it get out of control. That’s not the fault of underpromising and overdelivering, it’s the fault of not managing your customer and your promises in a consistent manner.

    P.S.: Jarzan, you’re taking “delivery” too literally. It’s “delivery of the promise”, not delivery of the product.

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