Are you making promises you can keep?

When a word is as familiar as “promise” it’s easy to think we know all there is to know about what it is and how it works. The dictionary defines it as “a declaration that something will or will not be done”, and “an express assurance on which expectation is to be based”.

Last week I wrote that keeping a promise is the one thing an organisation can do to be successful. So as promised, this week we’ll take a look at what goes into making promises you can keep.

Promises pop up in all sorts of places, some are obvious, some sneak around hidden, “implied but not plainly expressed; virtually contained (in)” other things. In other words some are explicit and some are implicit – the difference is important.

Explicit promises are easy. They are the ones that we all see and recognise. “We will do X” or “we will give you Y”. Note that easy to recognise doesn’t mean easy to keep. Any promise made in haste, or without thinking through what keeping it will mean, is almost certain to become a promise you can’t keep and maybe shouldn’t have made.

Implicit promises are by nature harder. We often don’t immediately think of them as a promise. They are often carelessly embedded in operations, policies, processes and the language used to describe them. Rarely do we think in a deliberate and conscious way about what those things are promising.

And to complicate the picture, often our implicit promises run counter to our explicit promises.

We’ve all seen this play out with an explicit promise of helpful customer service that is made a mockery of by an implicit promise of impossible-to-navigate call-in systems. Or in the explicit promise of quality products, undermined by the implicit promise held in weak or no better-than-the-other-guy guarantees.

I am sure you can think of your own examples, maybe even in your own business. The misalignment between explicit and implicit sits at the heart of many failed organisations and disappointing customer and employee experiences.

It’s not enough to just make promises. You’ve got to keep them. To keep them you’ve got to make a promise you can keep in the first place. To make a promise you can keep you’ve got to deeply understand the elements of your organisation’s identity: purpose and values.

You’ve got to know what you can and can’t do, what you do and don’t care about.

Underneath those things is the kind of deep work and deliberate and conscious decision making that pops up regularly on this page.

Last week I suggested that people do an audit of the promises they are making. But that’s only half the story and it’s not even the interesting half. So this week go a step further. Do an audit of the promises you’re keeping.

Because that’s where the story gets told. Not just in the headline, but in the footnotes.

Brand is the result of the sum total of all the big and small promises kept (or not). For every promise not kept, belief in what is said is eroded, even on the promises you are keeping, until eventually the weight of broken promises affects the credibility of the brand and the organisation (or person).

The strength of the brand can be found in the alignment between the promises you make and the ones you keep. In my experience any brand that is keeping most of its promises has a foundation that will see it through all manner of ups and downs.

It sounds obvious but it never ceases to amaze me how cavalier people can be with their promises.

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan


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