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Is exceeding expectations worth the hassle?

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Is exceeding expectations worth the hassle?

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“There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”  Roger Staubach

As marketing has become more fundamental to organizational life, a number of marketing based maxims have entered the professional lexicon.  Foremost amongst these is of course the importance of expectations.  It is fairly well established that the best will not only meet their expectations, but they’ll exceed them.  Whether it’s consumer companies selling you a product or an internal colleague, the mantra is that you should always go that extra mile and really impress them.

It’s one of those things that has been said frequently enough to have become a commercial lore.  A study published recently however suggests that it might not be as clear cut as all that.  It contends that whilst having our expectations unmet is certainly a cause for consternation, we’re all rather ambivalent about having our expectations exceeded.

The researchers conducted a number of experiments that tested imagined, recalled and actual promise making.  One of these experiments for instance, asked participants to recall three promises.  One of them was broken, one kept, with the final one exceeded.  They were then asked to rate how happy they were with the promise maker’s behaviour.

Now, it has to be said, participants didn’t like having promises broken, and valued kept promises significantly more than their broken brethren.  However, it emerged that very little extra credit was bestowed upon the promise maker when they’d exceeded expectations.  This was later explained by the belief that exceeding expectations didn’t really require much extra effort.  So people don’t generally believe exceeded promises are ‘going the extra mile’.

This theory was tested in another experiment.  This time it was live, with a participant promising to help a colleague with a series of puzzles they had been set.  The researchers however instructed them to either under or over deliver on that promise.

Just as with the previous experiment, over-delivering conferred no additional benefit on the giver, despite the obvious additional effort they put into doing so.  Keeping and exceeding the promise were valued just the same.

“I was surprised that exceeding a promise produced so little meaningful increase in gratitude or appreciation. I had anticipated a modest positive effect,” the researchers say, but “what we actually found was almost no gain from exceeding a promise whatsoever.”

The finding was replicated across a number of experiments, causing the researchers to hold great sway in the robustness of their hypothesis.

But what causes this?  The researchers believe our attitudes to promises as a society sit at the heart of these responses.

“Keeping a promise is valued so highly, above and beyond its ‘objective’ value,” they say. “When you keep a promise, not only have you done something nice for someone but you’ve also fulfilled a social contract and shown that you’re a reliable and trustworthy person.”

All of which runs rather counter to the marketing zeitgeist that suggests we should go that extra mile in delighting our customers.  This study suggests that you will not be liked any more for doing so.  Suffice to say, of course, the simple matter of keeping promises is struggle enough for many organizations, so if nothing else, this research reinforces the importance of doing that.

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