Business Advice

The temptation to over-promise and how to fix it

Michel Hogan /

Wharton marketing professor Robert Meyer claims “we are absolutely living in the era of the apology”. Facebook, Uber and, more locally, banks – and more banks – have all said: “We’re sorry”.

And while Meyer delves into the pros and cons of public mea culpas, focusing the conversation on the nature, timing and place of an apology shields the deeper question of why so many organisations are making promises they can’t keep in the first place.

Because underneath every apology is a broken promise: we promised your privacy and data was safe; we promised we would do the right thing; we promised we would take care of your money — the list of broken promises goes on and on.

The sheer number of organisations stepping up to the apology plate suggests there’s a deep malaise at work; a cavalier attitude treating promises as suggestions plays a part.

The toxic bedfellows of unrealistic goals and fiscal incentives appear in the mix, driving promises no one could hope to keep and behaviours designed to break promises and any shred of remaining confidence people had left.

However, perhaps the race to be first is the most corrosive, driving a ‘say it today and figure out how to do it tomorrow’ mentality, earning the quaint term ‘over-promising’. The practice is handily enabled by the fear of missing out from stakeholders who have been made promises.

Learn more about how to make promises you can keep click here.

A brand is the result of the promises you keep. So the promises you make and how you keep them are not only integral — they are paramount. Over-promising will send you down a path ending in an apology, not a robust brand.

Which brings me to a tricky thing about promises: they are always future-state. So the temptation to over-promise and figure it out later is almost irresistible. But to halt the rash of apologies and rebuild confidence, organisations must resist.

And while a quick apology may seem like a trifling price to pay for a broken promise, before you blithely throw around ones you can’t keep, consider the sentiments of Charles Fried in his book Contract as Promise. Fried notes: “A promise invokes trust in my future actions, not merely in my present sincerity”, meaning the burden of broken promises ripples beyond the initial context and undermines the credibility of future actions.

The fix for over-promising is not to hope, then apologise. Instead, employ disciplined thinking about the full nature of the promise being made, including time, risk, reward, resources, culture and past promises — just to list a few elements. Combine that with a realistic plan for the numerous actions and decisions required between the making and the keeping of the promise.

The stakes are high. Beyond brand, an erosion of faith in promises is an erosion of the confidence and resulting trust which enables trade and social cooperation. So please, make promises you can keep — and keep them.

See you next week.

NOW READ: Keeping your promise starts with how you make them

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Michel Hogan

Michel Hogan is an independent brand thinker and adviser dedicated to helping you make promises you can keep and keep the promises you make — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com.

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