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The other week, I got a text from my son’s new school to say he was one of the five fastest boys in his year. They were really keen for him to represent the school at cross country. Could he report for training the following afternoon?

I was quite surprised. Sure, he runs around a lot. But he’d never struck me as being particularly fast.

When he came home, I told him the good news and congratulated him.

“So, you’ll be going to training tomorrow?” I asked.

“I don’t want to,” he replied.

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’ll be embarrassing.”

“But you’re one of the fastest boys in your year!”

“I don’t like it. I try hard but it hurts and I don’t enjoy it.”

“But you’re good at it. And it’ll get easier as you get better at it.”

“I can’t go. When they selected us, everyone went round the track three times. I only went round twice.”

And so, having discovered the misunderstanding, we told the school – which quite rightly pointed out to my son he should have owned up in the first place.

About three days afterwards, when I had finally finished laughing about the situation, it made me think of how some businesses put themselves in a false position by suggesting they are capable of doing things which they can’t.

We’ve all encountered them.

The firm that promises a quote within 24 hours but doesn’t reply to your email for over a week. The company that promises to supply your order within two days but then contacts you (after you have paid) to say it won’t be in stock for a month. The handyman who promises you he knows how to lay bricks, only to ‘build’ you a wall that comes down in the next storm. You will have many examples of your own.

There’s a generally accepted mantra in business that you should always under-promise and over-deliver. That way, your clients and customers don’t get disappointed and are instead pleasantly surprised when your service surpasses their expectations.

Of course, things do go wrong from time to time, even in the best-run firms. But if you have a reputation for sticking to your promises and you put your hands up when you fail, then you’re likely to keep succeeding.

While my son didn’t mean to mislead anyone by doing two laps instead of three, it’s a good reminder for anyone in business to look at what they are promising their customers.

Make a point of looking closely at your marketing, your website and all your other publicity materials and ask yourself whether you can in fact deliver on the promises you made.

If you can’t, either change your systems so you can deliver – or change your promise to one you can keep.

That way, customers are more likely to do an extra lap and come back to you for repeat business.

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About Ben Locker

Ben Locker is a copywriter who specialises in business-to-business marketing, writing about everything from software and accountancy to construction and power tools. He co-founded the Professional Copywriters’ Network, the UK’s association for commercial writers, and is named in Direct Marketing Association research as ‘one of the copywriters who copywriters rate’.

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