Any experienced sales manager has probably instructed his or her reps at some point to “underpromise but overdeliver.” It’s the conventional sales wisdom, and it sounds prudent and responsible.

But what if part of this sales axiom — the underpromising part — were wrong? What if your reps can actually make a lot of headway, and close more sales, simply by making LOTS of promises — specifically, many small, easily keepable ones?

Well, there’s evidence to support exactly that point. It comes in the form of a behavioral study from the University of Chicago’s business school and the UC-San Diego school of management.

Promising to help
The researchers asked people to imagine a scenario in which a friend promised to help them with an important task. Then the researchers presented three different outcomes:

  • One group of subjects was told that the friend dropped the ball, providing much less help than expected.
  • The second group was told that the friend had done what he’d promised.
  • The third group was told that the friend overdelivered — providing far more help than expected.

Next, the people in the experiment were asked how they felt about their hypothetical friend — to rate him as selfish, fair or generous, and to indicate whether they felt grateful toward him.

It’s perhaps not terribly enlightening to learn that the evaluations were much more positive for people who kept their promises than for those who broke them. But what IS enlightening is the reason for this effect.

The ‘fairness premium’
The researchers concluded that making a promise and then keeping it earns something psychologists call the “fairness premium.” In order to be fair, the person receiving the promise feels obliged to acknowledge not only that the promise makers provided valuable help, but also that they are good, reliable human beings.

Let’s stop and think about the power of that last idea. It suggests that when your reps keep a promise, they get a double dividend. They get credit for the value delivered. But they also get a personal premium. The buyer gives them credit for being trustworthy people.

And making and keeping multiple promises –- even small ones –- earns reps the premium over and over. Customers learn that your reps are people who always deliver what they promise, and never promise what they can’t deliver. It’s pretty obvious the value this will have in terms of customer goodwill — and, all things being equal, more goodwill usually leads to more sales.

What about overdelivering, though? The research showed that promise-makers didn’t get extra personal credit when they exceeded their promises. It seems the value of a kept promise is so high already that overdelivering can’t add much.

But before you rush off and tell your reps to stop trying to exceed customer expectations, let’s be clear about what the research is — and isn’t — saying. There’s nothing wrong with surprising and delighting customers. If reps see an opportunity to wow a buyer, by all means they should do so. But that’s a nice-to-have, not a must-have. The foundation of a sales relationship is about trust and reliability –- reps doing what they promised, no matter what.

A promising strategy
So then what, in light of the research, might you tell your reps to do differently?

  • Leverage the value of many little promises. There’s nothing wrong with a big promise -– but the bigger the promise, the harder it is to keep. So train your reps to look for opportunities throughout the sales process to make small, easily keepable promises. Remember, the fairness premium comes from keeping the promise – not the size of the promise.
  • Make the promises explicit. Reps are probably making and keeping promises to buyers all the time. But if the buyer doesn’t perceive them as promises, the rep doesn’t earn the fairness premium. There’s a huge difference, for example, between saying “Your order will arrive on Tuesday” and “I promise you that your order will arrive on Tuesday.” Reps don’t have to say “I promise” every time, but they should be clear that they are actively committing to making something happen.
  • Make the promises personal. The fairness premium is about THE REP, not his or her company or product. So reps shouldn’t say, “We promise.” They should say, “I promise.”

Promise maker, promise keeper
Finally, there’s something critically important for reps to keep in mind as they contemplate the value of promises, and it’s this:

If they do make a promise, they must keep it. They — and your company — pay a big price for every failed promise.

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