Introduction

Beginning of a new year is time for new beginnings. We all make new resolutions, such as, regular exercise, giving up smoking. Over time one finds that these promises just fade away. Politicians too make promises at the beginning of their new terms and the result is the same, many broken promises.

Businesses are no different. Marketing is making promises and commitments, such as, to deliver goods on time or fix a customer problem. Customers value businesses that deliver what they promise. Customers trust increases. Confidence is eroded when businesses are not as seen keeping promises. IT is no different. Without customers basic trust that you will deliver what you promise, nothing else you do matters.

If keeping promises is important, why is it so hard to keep promises?

I have been reading a book called ‘Reliability Rules’ by Price and Schultz. It describes the challenges of Promises Management and how organisations can manage their promises and improve customer satisfaction and build brand. I believe these techniques are vary valuable for IT groups.

Common myths about promising

There are many myths about promising. People like (positive) surprises! Under-promise and over deliver! According to Price and Schultz, these are just that, myths. Customers value consistency over surprise. They want their realistic expectations to be met time and again.  If you always deliver early (surprise) customer may suspect you are over charging as the work is not as much as expected or may change expectations that you will always be early, thus defeating the purpose of under-promising. Continuing to over deliver increases costs. Customer likes the extra service but may not value it appropriately. Soon that would become the new expectation.

Fundamentals of reliability

There are three principles behind the reliability philosophy. These are Promise alignment, Promise clarity and the Moment of truth.

  1. Promise Alignment – Two drivers must be aligned; a) How well promises are made? b) How well they are kept? The challenge is that a lot of attention is given to delivering on the promises rather than on how well they are made in the first place.
  2. Promise Clarity – Promises must be clear both to the people who are carrying them out but also to the receiver or the customer. Promise making is poorly managed in most businesses. As a result employees shy away from making explicit commitments or try to distance them from the promise. (E.g. Rather than saying a problem will be fixed in 3 days, call centre says, I shall notify the Technical support today. This is not a clear promise to the customer).
  3. Moment of Truth – The moment of truth for the promise is when the delivery (or action) is made. At this time the customer evaluates what he thought he was getting against what is actually delivered. When there is lack of clarity about what was promised, it is difficult to confirm that the delivery meets the promise. Any resetting of expectations must happen prior to delivery otherwise disappointment is likely to result.

Six ways promises are broken

Six ways promises are broken
Figure 1 – Six ways promises are broken


There are six ways promises are regularly broken. Only one way relates to poor delivery on a well-made promise. This underscores the importance of improving promise-making processes.

  1. Making Unrealistic promises – Unrealistic promises result from pressure from customer or competition. Customers may have unrealistic expectations. Sometimes the capability does not match expectations. Not challenging this result in unrealistic promises.
  2. Making a promise that is unclear, inaccurate or incomplete – Vague or unclear promises result in two sides having different interpretations of what was promised especially if agreement from the receiver is not obtained.
  3. Making promise by making no promise – Even when no promise is made the customer may draw from their past experience and expect certain outcomes. When these don’t match the performance, dissatisfaction results.
  4. Failing to manage promises when circumstances change – Changes to specifications, or internal peaks may time to time result in delays in delivery. Failing to notify customer and reset expectations leads to broken promises.
  5. The promise is not passed on properly – In large organisations; the person who makes the promise is not always the person responsible for the delivery.  Failure to pass on the promise in a full and timely manner result in broken promises.
  6. A promise well made is simply not done – Even when none of the above failures occur, delivery team may still overlook a detail, fail to test an aspect and the delivery is not made.

Getting promise management right

Price and Schultz identify four focus areas to get the promise management right. These are a) Brand promise, b) Partner reliability chain c) Customer promise management and d) Dependability within. Reviewing these four areas for failures of promise management would identify opportunities to improve.

a)     Brand Promise

Brand promises get made by marketing or by policies (e.g. service standards). An example of brand promise is Volvo, which is known for passenger safety. Brand applies to internal service providers like IT as well. IT policies, service levels, CIO statements and past experience creates a “brand promise”. Generally the team that has to deliver does not make the promise. Over promising can create serious disconnects and repeated over promising results in scepticism within as well as with customers.

  1. Audit the brand promise to understand where the gaps between the promise and delivery are.
  2. Explicitly communicate the ‘true’ promise by customer charters, published service levels etc
  3. Does your delivery organisation understand the brand promise and their role within it? Do they have the tools to meet the promise? Realign job roles as necessary.

b)    Partner reliability chain

Organisations have suppliers, agents, third party service providers and other parties who help deliver the service or the promise. Where partners have poor reliability (track record, quality, customer service) it can have a major impact on delivery.

  1. Establish systems to evaluate partner reliability performance. Key measures such as, ‘delivery in full on time’ or ‘on time, in full on spec’ would identify gaps.
  2. Firm’s interactions with partners (last minute changes, time to pay invoices) can also have an impact on how well they work together. Review how the firm and the partners view themselves and each other, where brand promises align and diverge and what can be done to improve trust (e.g. sharing information, mutual compromise etc)
  3. Include partners in the improvement initiatives. Where partners play a key role in delivery, including them in process improvement initiatives would pay big dividends.

c)     Customer promise management

Customers can cause promise management problems by at times having unrealistic expectations or not fulfilling their side of the transactions (e.g. specifications signed off on time). They may not have a clear understanding of their role or may not have the capability.

  1. Ensure reliable delivery of the “basics”. Get your customers to define what is their basic expectation from your firm/ group in their language (e.g. Easy to deal with, knowledgeable about their business, possess technical expertise etc). Take steps to meet these consistently.
  2. Take charge in managing customer reliability – Some companies are starting with making their customer promises explicit. Don’t assume, get the details of what the customer is going to do sorted in advance. Ensure the customer understands the consequences of the delays/ broken promises by the customer.
  3. Work with customers on change management plans. Define what is the fallback plan, what are the consequences of change. Work with the customers to reset promises.
  4. Customers can be really disorganised they can benefit from your experience in making and delivering reliable promises.

d)    Dependability within

without dependable internal people and processes, an organisation cannot improve reliability. Reliability starts at home.

  1. Is reliability measured or valued inside the organisation? Are leaders walking the talk on reliability? Are you hiring highly reliable people?
  2. Break down the silos – Collaboration between teams and silos is essential to deliver reliably on promises. Cross-functional effort to see how promises get broken and how the teams can work together to address these issues is a start.
  3. Improve promise-making capability and keep track of promises made in some type of a central system.

Impact of lack of reliability is often under estimated. Attention to reliability via promises management is a powerful way for IT groups to create trust and build credibility for them as well as for the organisation.

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