Are you “under-promising and over-delivering”?

Someone at a meeting I was in a few weeks ago made a statement to the effect that he valued management (sales management in particular) following this mantra.

I couldn’t disagree more.

While it makes for a great VC cliché it seems to me that it’s not a good plan to set an expectation with companies that you work with that you want them to essentially lie to you about the results they expect. Following this down the management line – from board to CEO to VP of Sales to Sales Manager to Salespeople – and you’ll completely cloud your view of what’s really happening in a business (where at every step of the way each person tries to set up an expectation that is lower than what they actually believe they deliver).

Instead, how about setting a realistic expectation for performance, lay out the factors that influence success and then try like hell to beat the number.

That sounds like a better plan to me.

  • Steven

    You don't have to lie to follow the under-promise and over-deliver statement either. It can simply mean setting realistic expectations by not over shooting numbers you're trying to hit. There is nothing wrong with being conservative with your estimates on what you think you'll hit. It's still an honest answer and it doesn't over hype or exaggerate the results. Of course you're always going to try hard as heck (or should) to maximize the results afterwards.

  • Seth, I think turning this over to say "Never over-promise and always deliver" makes more sense. An analogy I like has to do with being on time. Being on time has nothing to do with when you arrive, and everything to do with when you said you'd be there. When you have control of the expectation, you need to be careful not to over-promise, and absolutely committed to delivering what you promise. I think there is no excuse for not delivering or exceeding what the customer expects when you're the one that sets the expectation.

    • Fair point, Andy. I mostly just hate the cliché of it. I get that companies should always be striving to achieve above their plans, but sandbagging those plans to beat them seems lame to me…

      • Agreed. I'm more concerned with the over-promise part than the sandbagging – but I hate sandbagging as much as you do. My focus is on making sure the customer gets what he expects, which I think is a function of what expectation is set by the seller.

  • Brian L.

    Seth,
    I agree with you for internal communications in a small company, but externally I disagree, specifically in relation to sales management. Although your argument to "setting a realistic expectation for performance, lay out the factors that influence success and then try like hell to beat the number," makes rational sense, I don't think it works out in the sales field, particularly in online media. In my experience (4 years of selling online media & partner deals at small and big companies), the people making the buying decisions do not generally care about the details. In the selling of online media, they are 20-something media planners who really just want to make a simple program that is perceived as a success. As such, they ask for low/conservative initial estimates for CTR, CPC, CPO etc.. They use your estimates as their own, and after the campaign ends, they point to the estimates against actuals and show a "big success." The campaign is renewed, and both sides are happy.

    • fair point. actually my initial draft of the post had a lengthy explanation of this kind of exception but i took it out thinking it was just getting too complicated. i understand why people in very specific circumstances set lower rather than higher targets, however my overall point is still relevant even in those situations. it’s one thing to go into a situation with little data and set reasonable (low) targets that you can later raise when you have more information. it’s another to purposefully sandbag.