The 4 kinds of promises you should never make to customers

You can have an outstanding product at a price that can’t be beat, but one thing is for sure: If you make a promise you can’t keep, your prospect will walk.

Unfortunately, breaking promises can become a bad habit. A study by Accenture found that over 60% of companies who broke promises to consumers were serial offenders:

sales broken promises

Does this mean you should stop making promises to customers? Not at all. But it does mean you need to deliver on the promises you do make.

Many promises made by sales reps depend on factors they can’t control, like the delivery of a product or the specific ROI that a customer can see from a marketing campaign.

Yet, delivering on your word is one of the simplest ways of earning long-term trust with your clients. And as a sales rep, you already know that long-term customers are the bread and butter of your company’s profitability.

Let’s dive into why sales promises can be dangerous, and which promises you’re making to customers that you shouldn’t be.

Making Promises Is a Dangerous Game

According to marketing consultancy Brand Keys, consumers’ expectations for products are higher now than they were a decade ago, yet brands are only able to fulfill their expectations 7% of the time.

That’s a pretty grim finding if you’re in the sales world. Your customers feel like they’re being constantly let down…which doesn’t help your brand or your bottom line.

Let’s unwrap a typical scenario of breaking a promise to a customer. Sure, they’ll probably cancel services and orders, which means your company will lose revenue. But what else?

It’s likely you’ll get a flood of angry customer service inquiries (or complaints) that your team will have to deal with. Plus, your company might have to go into damage control if those customers complain online via social media channels or review websites.

To avoid this mess, ask yourself:

  • What promises am I making to my customers? Make sure you know, inside out, every single promise you’ve made to your customers (and prospective customers). Using a CRM that allows you to log conversations with your customers that every member of your team can reference can help you keep track.
  • Which promises do my customers care about the most? You might break promises all the time and get away with it because your customer won’t care about a lot of them. Through your conversations with each prospect, find out what they’re likely to care about the most so that broken promises don’t land you in trouble.

Here are some of the main areas where sales reps stumble when it comes to making promises to prospects:

1. Setting unrealistic expectations

When in doubt, underpromise and overdeliver. Don’t do the opposite.

If you promise a customer that their product will be delivered overnight (when you can’t be sure) or that they’ll receive 20 new leads per month from using your product (that you can’t guarantee), it can have a disastrous effect, not only to your customer relationship but to your company as a whole.

A 2017 study by American Express found that customers who have a bad customer experience tell an average of 15 people. In other words, one broken promise has the potential to alienate 15 people against your brand.

The most common lies told to customers are about the delivery timeframe of their purchase and unexpected costs related to their purchase. [TWEET THIS!] Other problems stem from not fulfilling contract obligations and not responding to customer complaints:

broken promises in sales hidden costs
(Source: Accenture)

The one thing all of these lies have in common? They stem from setting unrealistic expectations with your customer.

The best way to avoid breaking a promise when it comes to expectations is to avoid locking down an expectation at all. If a customer wants a task completed by Friday afternoon but you aren’t 100% certain it’s do-able, don’t say yes. Avoid disappointing them by saying a Friday deadline is possible, but they’ll have it by Monday at the latest.

Not only does this give you a bit of breathing space, but it means your customer won’t be let down by a promise you weren’t certain you could keep in the first place.

Pro tip: There are ways you can hack the system to make sure you’re setting expectations that you can meet.

For example, if a customer asks about the delivery of a product and you’re 99% certain it can arrive on the 4th, don’t tell them the delivery date will be the 4th. Tell them it will arrive between the 4th and the 6th.

That way, not only will you have delivered their product in your proposed timeframe, but in the eyes of the customer, you’ve got it there as quickly as possible.

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2. Letting a client pressure you into a “yes”

This is basically the flipside of the previous point. Instead of trying to sway a prospect with an unrealistic promise, a prospect made an unrealistic request, and you said “yes” when you should have said “no.” You were backed into a corner, and now you’re screwed.

Let’s set the scene. You’ve got a manager breathing down your neck to make your targets for the quarter, and you’re in a pitch with a company to offer them a solution that will take three months to deliver. The customer is pushy and says they’ll sign the contract if you can deliver it in six weeks. You choose to agree and your fate is sealed.

This is a classic scenario of, no matter how desperate you were for a new customer, you should’ve said no to avoid breaking a promise. Not only can this lead to financial losses for your business, but it can damage client relationships and blow your deliverables out of the water.

Want to avoid this? Simple. Only take on projects you know you can deliver on time and don’t be pressured into doing otherwise, no matter how great the temptation.

Pro tip: Explain any potential obstacles for a project before they have a chance to happen. If a client knows what potential problems to expect, it won’t be such a blow if those problems actually end up happening.

Steal this line to get you out of trouble the next time this pops up in a meeting:

3. Making a promise that relies on the deliverables of others

If a promise is broken due to circumstances outside of your control, news flash—it’s still a broken promise.

Whether you’re betting on a shipping company coming through with the goods, or a graphic designer pushing a piece through quicker than expected, relying on deliverables outside of your control is dangerous territory to be in.

Take this online purchase from a customer who didn’t get his items delivered when promised. He complained, of course:

Instead of taking responsibility, the store threw their supplier under the bus:

Which made things a million times worse:


Lesson learned. Always be totally transparent with your customer if things get a little out of control.

If one of your suppliers missed their delivery date or a web developer is running behind on a part of a project, fess up. Tell your customer that although you had planned for delays in the project, you underestimated the length of the delays.

And instead of waiting for the problem to blow over, try and find solutions for your customer in the meantime. Making it clear that you’re trying to make things right will work in your favor.

4. Promising insane outcomes

Did you know that Skechers was sued for $40 million?

Yep. They promised their customers that by wearing their sneakers, they would lose weight. Of course, there are so many variables in this scenario (were they going to go to a customers house and telling them to put down their Oreos?) that the promise made by Skechers was, in hindsight, insane.

The key message from this lesson: Don’t promise crazy.

Only promise what you can actually deliver. This is also different from under-promising and overdelivering. A slick advertising campaign might bring in new customers and fill your prospect pipeline, but make sure what you’re promising them is in check.

Take a look at your website and make sure all of your info (pricing, deliverables, services) are up-to-date. If you run a marketing company that used to dabble in SEO but now you just don’t offer it, remove it from your website. If a customer contacts you about SEO because they’ve seen it advertised on your website, it’s not a good look.

Here’s another example: If you’re a marketing agency and you’re trying to sign a new client, don’t promise bottom-of-the-funnel results:

ice cream cone marketing funnel

Why? Because you’re promising crazy. (Ultimately, it’s up to the sales team to close leads; all a marketing agency can do is increase the quantity and quality of those leads.)

Even though a customer wants to hear that you can bring in 100 new customers per month (and you might be able to), there are just too many variables at play for you to make that commitment.

Don’t be like Skechers. Stick to promises you can keep.

The Best Formula: Offer Value, Not Promises

The safest way to not break promises with your customers is to not make them at all.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer extra value when you’re trying to close a deal. You just need to be smarter about how you do it.

Only make promises you can 100% keep. If a promise relies on outside sources or an outcome you can’t control, don’t make it at all. Instead, focus on maintaining a killer communication line with the customer to keep them informed on where you’re at, so they know what to expect on their end.

To repeat: When in doubt, underpromise and overdeliver. Don’t do the opposite.

Is your sales team struggling to hit targets? Check out what you should do when your sales team is underperforming.

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