To succeed, don’t overpromise and underdeliver

A few years from now, how many of us will remember Mike Bloomberg’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination? I’m guessing it’s something Mike would like us to forget. But like all failures, we can use Mike’s story to learn some lessons that about business success, user experience design success, and success in practically any other life endeavor.

The first idea is so common a concept that it’s almost a cliché: don’t overpromise and underdeliver. You can flip that around and say that the key to success in both business and personal relationships is to strive always to underpromise and overdeliver. Who doesn’t love it when they get more than they expected? A better outcome, surprising service, more for your money, unanticipated delight — just more than you expected in any given situation. It makes deposits in people’s emotional bank account, builds better relationships, and in both our business and personal lives, contributes greatly to success.

The second idea is really just a variation on the first: advertising is worthless unless the product experience backs it up. That was Mike Bloomberg’s downfall, and he fell hard and fast. The $500+ million that he spent on ads made his varnished persona sound so amazing — how could there be a better candidate? But when he finally appeared on the stage, live and in person, his “real” self was a drastic disappointment. The lesson: advertising should never overpromise on a product that will underdeliver. This is one of the main reasons people don’t trust advertising. Brands please take note: the more you deliver above customers’ expectations, the more happy they will be and the more successful you will be. Doing the opposite can be disastrous.

I remember an example of that kind of disaster from a past client experience. It was in the early days of the world’s transition from analog to digital. This client had a new company with what seemed like a recipe for successfully riding that rave: converting paper blueprints and engineering drawings to digital files. At the time they were ahead of the curve: in the right place at the right time to capture major market share on the cusp of a huge trend. So what happened? They advertised nationally right out of the gate. Their advertising promised quick turnaround on their service to digitize blueprints and engineering documents. The advertising worked great, in fact too great, which was the problem. The fledgling company was overwhelmed with business and couldn’t keep up with demand. Within a few weeks they had so many unhappy customers that the business failed due to having burned so many bridges with such a large share of its prospective market.

Test early and often

That example is not just evidence of the importance of not overpromising and underdelivering, it’s also a great example of the importance of testing. If the company had simply rolled their new service our gradually, starting with a few test markets and expanding based on projected demand, they would have succeeded instead of having gone down in flames.

Just as in user experience, customer experience should be tested early and often to point the way to success. Mike Bloomberg’s team probably tested his ads to see if they resinated before he spent millions of dollars to run them. Perhaps he should have used some of that money to test his stage presence and debating skills in front of a live audience. It may have improved his performance (the product) or even taught him that he should bother investing in ads that didn’t reflect the reality and authenticity he could deliver.

In user experience design, marketing, business and in our personal lives, we can all learn an important lesson: much better than advertising is a positive experience that overdelivers on expectations — expectations that we ourselves often have the power to shape and control.

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