Man taking oath with fingers crossed

People make promises in business all the time. They make promises to close sales. They make promises to get jobs. Managers make promises to boost performance. Most of the time promises are meaningless. Most of the time, promises are dismissed as mere sugary words. Why is that?

Let’s start by challenging the premise that most of the time promises don’t matter. You may question that. Stop and think about the last time you were in a situation where a promise was made to you. Perhaps you were negotiating a big deal for your company and the other side promised something like “we promise you’ll be happy with the quality” or “we promise to deliver on time”.
If you have had quality or on-time delivery issues in the past, even if the problems were with another company, you will receive the promise with a bit of skepticism. Why?

For a promise to be effective in negotiation, as a tool of influence, it needs to contain something that the one promising doesn’t want to do.

If I promise that you will be happy with a presentation class I teach, that’s only as good as my word. If we haven’t worked together, you haven’t got much to reinforce the promise. If I promise that you will not be billed unless you are satisfied with the class, I had better deliver. I certainly do not want to fly across the country to work for free.

All effective promises contain a penalty clause. For example, you can promise on-time delivery or all shipping costs are waived. That may be good enough if the shipping costs are substantial and if the delivery time isn’t ultra-critical. If I absolutely must have delivery by next Wednesday, and you ship late, waiving the shipping charges might not be enough to assure me of your reliability.
When making promises in presentation, be certain that your promises are backed by something you do not want to do if the promise is not kept.

This may sound like a subtle point, but it makes all the difference in the persuasiveness of a presentation. I’ve worked with clients who made promises and failed to deliver leaving me in a tough position to get my work done.

In one case, I developed a program that would save a client hundreds of hours per week in their quote process. To build the tool, I needed to collect a lot of data. The company owner promised me that each of their 23 branches would assemble their necessary (regional) data. I would travel to each branch, collect the data, review it with management and build the tool for quoting in their region.

The first five branches I visited were ready. We spent a couple days compiling and adjusting the data and they ended up with a very cool new tool. When I arrived at the sixth branch things broke down. The data wasn’t ready, the branch manager decided to be ‘in the field’ that day and the team assigned the task of gathering the data simply refused to do the work. The owner promised me that the data would be ready but when this branch refused to comply, I was told to skip that branch. The promise had no enforcement clause. Without the data, I couldn’t do my part. After that branch office failed to comply, a few others did the same. The branches that did the work got the tools to save time and they increased sales. The other branches did not.

This was a serious management problem. Refusal to follow a directive from the owner indicated a flaw in the culture. Branch managers made promises but there was no penalty to not delivering. Guess what? Within 2 years the company failed. This was a 90 year old business with 23 branches. Failed. I suspect there were lots of promises made without penalty clauses.

Yes, it’s that serious.

Promises are made to enhance the chances of getting what you want. When you make a promise in presentation, be sure that promise contains a clause stating something you do not want to do if the promise is not kept. A promise without a penalty will probably not enhance your proposal.

Chris Reich