Under-promise and over-deliver is a piece of advice I’ve heard repeated many times since I started working in this field. As a web designer, following this advice has long brought me comfort and insurance; if I ran into problems, it made it okay to fall short of my best-case without missing a delivery, and when the work went faster than I expected, it made for a pleasant surprise for everyone involved. And well, that’s always been nice for me. But recently, I realized I’d only ever thought of this advice as a means of protecting my own interests…

That changed when I began searching for a contractor to do some remodeling on my house. The process would start similarly each time. I’d call a contractor and tell them that I needed help on some projects and they’d begin asking the sort of questions that would inform an estimate. Invariably, they would tell me a date in the near future when I should expect to receive a quote. Invariably again, that day would arrive and I’d hear nothing. Usually days would pass after that—often a week or more. I’d send them a meek nudge via email or text, “just wondering if you might get around to that estimate sometime soon,” and again I’d hear, “absolutely - should have you something by [day].”

In hindsight, the key word in their communication was “should,” and I heard it enough times that I came to realize that they meant it to convey a best-case scenario, if all went according to plan. In other words, they were over-promising, and since they were as busy as any of us they were leaving themselves little chance of meeting the expectations that they set. As a client, it was frustrating because it left me unsure of whether to call another contractor, bother them again, or just keep waiting it out. In the cases where I did receive a quote, it was often so late that I was left feeling uncertain I could trust them to actually do the work they had quoted, or at least in a reasonable amount of time. Cold feet would lead me to call yet another company and start the process over again.

Of course, this is not just about the construction industry. This communication breakdown happens in our field all the time. It feels good to please our clients, and I suspect the urge to be a “yes”-person often leads us to overload ourselves with projects, deadlines, and best-case promises that sometimes fall short. In that regard, under-promising can certainly aid us service providers in maintaining our own sanity, but playing the role of a client reminded me that in the early stages of a project, we service providers hold a great deal of power over our clients who don’t have the luxury of such strategies. Clients have a problem to solve and they’re asking us for help. It’s important that we never let our urge to say the most pleasing thing cause us to take advantage of people’s time and trust.

Thankfully for me, things have improved lately on the remodeling front. In yet another meeting with a new contractor last week, they told me they should be able to get me a quote by the end of the week. There was that word again. This time though, two days before the deadline they really did send me a quote! It was a little more expensive than others I’d received, but the trust they conveyed made me feel like they were worth it, and I decided to hire them for the job. They start tomorrow.

In our industry, we talk a lot about empathy. But it’s most often about our users and less frequently about our clients. Frustrations aside, I’m glad that this small role reversal placed me in the shoes of the client, and reminded me that this oft-repeated phrase is not just insurance for our service, but a service in itself.