Have you ever known someone who was great at something—like singing, for example—but constantly downplayed his or her abilities? Humility is an admirable quality, but when people downplay their assets or the experience they can provide by too wide a margin, it can easily come off as insecurity, or worse, manipulation. If someone tells you that he can barely carry a tune and then sings a difficult aria with perfect pitch, wouldn’t you wonder what his motive was for setting the expectation that his vocal abilities were just barely up to snuff?
Similarly, someone who isn’t great at something but oversells you on his or her capabilities can raise eyebrows. If someone tells you that she can sing like Celine Dion and then opens her mouth and sounds more like a Muppet who’s just sucked on a helium balloon, you’re probably not only going to question her good sense, but whether or not she can deliver on all of the other promises she’s been making.
When it comes to B2B sales, some people abide by the idea that if they routinely undersell their capabilities and then consistently exceed expectations, the client will always be pleasantly surprised by the end result. Other salespeople abide by the opposite; they believe in making promises even when they don’t know whether or not they can deliver on them. They make claims in an effort to win or keep the account, and then cross their fingers that when they hang up the phone or leave the meeting, they will be able to hustle and figure out how to make good on their claims.
Underselling and Overselling
There are problems with both notions.
When you undersell and then over-deliver, you set the expectation that you will consistently over-deliver. You also run the risk of appearing as though you’re not completely confident in your company’s services or solutions, or of giving the client the idea that you’re purposefully setting expectations low in an effort to make yourself look good upon delivery. While underselling and over-delivering might seem like a good strategy in the short term, in the long run, it usually generates distrust and disrespect.
When you oversell, you set the expectation that you are capable of performing at a level at which you may not actually be able to perform. You run the risk of appearing as though you don’t really know what you’re doing (because you don’t really know what you’re doing), or of setting the expectation that you will say yes to every request, however outside of scope a request may be. Overselling in the hopes that you will be able to deliver is rarely a good strategy. Even if you can make good on the promises you make, hustling and scrambling to deliver something completely outside of your wheelhouse or that you don’t have prior experience in delivering is rarely going to prove productive or cost-efficient.
5 Steps to Setting the Right Expectations
How do you set the right expectations? Below are 5 simple steps to setting expectations that will help you build trust and establish long-term relationships.
- Make clear to the client what the client should expect to get out of the engagement.
- Make clear what will be required of the client in order for the client to get the most out of the engagement.
- Establish a project timeline using actual dates.
- Describe the types of variables that may occur and how they might alter your project timeline.
- When you don’t know the answer to a client’s question or don’t know whether or not you can fulfill a client’s request, explain that you will find out the answer or present the client with appropriate options at a later date. Establish the date by which you will respond, and then follow through by that date.
Setting the right expectations isn’t rocket science, but in the heat of the moment, when a sale is on the line or when pleasing the client seems paramount, it can be easy to forgo setting the right expectations for underselling or overselling. Don’t get caught in an underselling or overselling trap! If, in the heat of the moment, you can’t remember the five steps above, try to remember this rule of thumb: If you can sing a song with perfect pitch, say so; if you can’t, don’t pretend you're Celine Dion.