Don’t Promise What You Can’t Deliver


This is the sixth in a collection of newspaper ads from United Technologies that appeared in the Wall Street Journal from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Here is the original ad.

“I’ll have
your parts
in two weeks.”
Four weeks later
the parts arrive.
“I’ll put it
in your hand the
minute you walk
in the door.”
But all you get
when you walk in
is a handshake.
“Dinner will be
at 6:00.”
But as your dip
your spoon in the soup,
the clock
strikes 7:45.
“The doctor
will see you
in five minutes.”
35 minutes later
you’re greeted cheerfully”
“And how are we today?”
Avoid a lot of grief and 
inconvenience for the
people you deal with.
Think twice before you
announce how long
something will take – 
and then
deliver what you
On time.

The basic message behind this ad from United Technologies is to deliver what you promise. A simple idea, but often poorly executed, as the examples in the ad show.

I must admit I’ve been guilty of this many times, particularly the one about “I’ll be home by 5:00”, and it turns out that I get home closer to 6:00, or even later.

I also tell my students that I will answer their emails within 24 hours, but occasionally an email or two will slip past me. I’ll read a student’s email, tell myself that I’ll answer it later, and then 100 emails later that student’s email is now  buried in my list of emails and I forget to answer it.

I think I’ve gotten better at over-promising and then under-delivering, but I know that there is definite room for improvement.

I do not believe the solution is to under-promise and then over-deliver; that isn’t really setting a very high standard of performance for myself, and to me such an approach seems deceptive. I could promise to be home by 10:00, and if I’m home by 7:00, then I may think I have just over-delivered. However, such an approach may leave the impression that I’m not very good at time management. In addition, other people are relying on that original estimate of 10:00, and arriving home by 7:00 could throw that person off his or her schedule.

Another example of the danger of under-promising so that you can over-deliver may help as well. Assume that a customer has approached with some possible work, and you promise that customer that you can deliver the order by Friday of the following week, knowing that you will likely have it delivered by Tuesday or Wednesday of that week. It’s certainly possible that when the customer hears the estimated delivery date of Friday, he may look for another vendor. As a result, you never get the chance to over-deliver.

I think the key is to first come up with the most reasonable estimate for what you are about to promise (neither overly optimistic or overly pessimistic), and then follow through on that promise.

After all, we’re only as good as our word, and if people end up not trusting our promises, what can they trust?


2 thoughts on “Don’t Promise What You Can’t Deliver

  1. The same might be said for friendships…or romances. If you know you’re not going to be loyal, don’t promise. If you know you aren’t going to take care of a puppy, don’t get one. And so on


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