Promises, promises, promises

ONLY make promises you can keep and keep the promises you make. Sounds simple, but doing it is one of (if not the) biggest failures of business.

So what's in a promise? There are many kinds. Explicit, implicit, big, small, short-term, long-term, just to name a few.

Last month, I kept a promise log for one week, trying to capture every single promise I made, from the banal (I'll do the dishes today) to the more business related (I'll get you the report to you on Tuesday).

At the end of the week I went back over my list. It was illuminating to say the least. I didn't keep all my promises exactly when I said I would, but I did score over 90% - not bad, but for a promise oracle not really good enough.

However, more than the percentage, it was what I discovered about the promises I didn't keep that told the most interesting story, and also confirmed some things I already knew about myself – like the fact that I hate bookkeeping tasks.

The pattern was clear. The promises I didn't keep fell into two distinct categories. They were either things I didn't really care about, or things that I'm not that good or confident at.
And in that I suspect I am not alone.

If were to review the promises made and promises kept lists for any company it's a pattern that I'm certain would repeat.

The dictionary defines a promise as "a declaration/express assurance on which expectation is based that something will or will not be done." Not much wriggle room there, though you would never know it judging the cavalier manner in which businesses use the term.

From Coles posting huge "we promise" signs in supermarkets, to Jetstar burying its promises in substitute language such as "we are committed to," a business can't escape its promises.

And here's the rub, you don't have to use the words "promise" for it to be a promise. If you are setting an expectation for something then you ARE making a promise.

A phone number on your website is the promise that a person will be able to talk to someone – small wonder people get so frustrated with automated voice mail systems and menus that stop that from happening.

A feature touted on a new product is a promise, as Apple found in the sharp end of customer wrath when the reception on its iPhone 4 didn't live up to their hype.

An agreement with a supplier or partner is a promise. Virgin Blue were understandably and vocally upset when Navitaire's promise of a working check-in system failed to deliver for 28 hours.

An interest rate is a promise. And when banks take the base rate and add their own margin on top, the public feels that promise is being broken.

A forecast to investors is a promise. Even though it is speculative by nature, companies are still routinely punished when they don't meet the numbers they have predicted.

An election promise is a promise, not a bargaining chip to be conveniently ignored under the guise of public opinion and political process.

An ad is a promise – something that marketing in general has been so deaf, dumb and blind to that they have almost single-handedly eroded our ability to believe anything we are told (of course there are always exceptions).

And here is where the rubber of promises meets a very bumpy road. The most public promises a business makes are in its marketing and in the one-on-one interactions between employees and customers. Not coincidently, they are also the ones that seem to be the most easily broken.

The marketing arena has been steadily eroding our belief in promises for decades, to the point that nearly any marketing position today is more likely met with "yeah right, sure you will" than the expectation that you will get what is promised.

For too long marketing has been given a hall pass – hype, smoke and mirrors being not just expected but actively encouraged. The more public the company profile, the bigger the promises they seem to make, like a weird destructive game of one-up-manship.

But in today's hyper-connected social media dominated world of business, you can't hide your failure to keep your promises any longer. Not only will you be caught out, they will be trumpeted across Twitterdom and the blogsphere.

Take the recent failures of ANZ and NAB to reign in their debt collections practices. The implied promises of their ad campaigns and taglines quickly became the stuff of parody. Tweets along the lines of "Hey ANZ I guess you live in bank world after all" and "NAB = more take" made it clear that people had built expectations around their messages. That is they saw them as promises that had been broken.

In another high profile failure to keep a promise, David Jones has been subject to both a financial and reputation cost from their former CEO flat out ignoring the inherent promise that goes along with employment – that you will be able to work in a safe environment free of harassment.

On the employee customer front, take a recent experience I had with a favorite company and brand – Patagonia. Seeing they only have one store here in Australia I wanted to call and make sure they had the particular item I was looking for. After speaking to the person at the store they promised to check with the warehouse and call me back. Nothing, nada, no call. So I followed up a week or so later (yep, I really wanted it) and spoke to another person who along with many apologies for the lack of response the first time was just heading to the warehouse and would call me from there to let me know if they had them or not - she even took my number. Still no call.

So finally I was in the area and called the store a third time to see if they had the item. They did and so I called in and picked it up. Sure, I got what I wanted in the end, but I was left loving a company I have routinely touted as one of the best brands in the world, a little less.

To be fair, Patagonia don't make any claims about exceptional service (unlike companies like Zappos). Its service guarantees are universally centered around the design, sustainability and durability of its products - and those promises they rigorously keep.

However, when the people I spoke to made a promise, I expected them to keep it.

Now scale the resulting disappointment in the brand from a simple broken promise to check the inventory of a product and get back to me, up to the business-wide promises contained in even your most basic piece of corporate communications, and you start to get a sense of the impact the problem can and does have.

What could the people at the Patagonia store done differently? They could hardly have told me they weren't going to get back to me - or could they? Patagonia's culture is marked by it's somewhat casual "let my people go surfing" ethos, so perhaps an honest "I don't know, could you call us back next week after I've been to the warehouse" would at least have set an expectation that they could meet.

I have been on a bit of a mission to find examples of companies who appear to be trying to apply more conscious and deliberate thought to their promises, however even the ones I found still smack of lip service.

For example, the Joomla developer support desk boldly lays out its promise on its site, with specifics to try and convey a sense of confidence that they have thought about it.

However, with somewhat ambiguous language peppered throughout, the statements make sure they have plenty of wriggle room – exactly what is "a timely manner"?

ANZ bank goes to great lengths in their Annual Customer Charter to put specific actions and measures against their promises.

It's a nice piece of communications that I am sure they feel all warm and fuzzy about, but when one of your stated promises is "quick, friendly and reliable service" and you still allow customers to be allegedly bullied by outsourced debt collection agencies, I am not sure you can claim your promise has been achieved, as the most recent report does.

Jetstar is sticking to its "low fares good times" promise in its Customer Guarantee despite the fact that the economics of making both pieces of the promise work are somewhat at odds with each other and also almost impossible to be held to. I'm pretty sure that not many people would define getting stranded in an airport for a week as their idea of a "good time" if you know what I mean.

I'd love to lay out an example or two of a company that is keeping (most) of its promises. I am sure they are out there, I just haven't really found any.

The bar seems to rise and fall wildly between a compulsion to either over-promise or go out of the way to try and not promise at all.

So where to from here? How do we roll back the clock and rebuild some faith and trust in the promises we hear? I think it starts with each of us being deliberate in the promises we make, keeping the ones we do and holding ourselves accountable when we don't.

It extends to businesses being deliberate and conscious about what they say and think beyond the words, to both the intent and whether the promises they are making are promises that can be kept - before they make them.

This would be a radical departure from the more common approach today of making a promise and then scrambling like mad to try and find a way to keep it. No need to name names but you can probably think or more than one example (cough, Telstra, cough).

From the boardroom to the mail room the cascading relationships that promises set in motion need to be acknowledged and built down into the operations of business – and I'll get the ball rolling with the following five suggestions.

  1. Try the promises log exercise for yourself or even for your whole company.
  2. On the big decisions, add the question "what promise are we making?" to your decision frameworks and then work backwards to make sure you can actually keep it BEFORE you make it public.
  3. Make conscious promising an element of your culture internally, build it as a principle of how you do business by regularly doing one and two. Include it in employee training so they never "forget" to return a phone call they have promised to make.
  4. Think about the language you are using. If you are trying to add wriggle room to something that is a promise, ask why? Ask what you would have to change so you could make it specific and by being specific be measurable?
  5. Rein in marketing promises so they reflect reality. If the reality isn't good enough to talk about go back to the drawing board and fix that.

Keeping your promises is the difference between a business and a brand that people loyally support and one that they merely tolerate. So now I've got you thinking about your promises, get mindful, be deliberate and rigorous and hold yourself accountable.

It's a place to start. 


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