I first learned the concept of under promise and over deliver from a trusted mentor way back in my twenties. Turns out, it is an aphorism.
Aphorisms, like clichés, are those pithy, often overused observations that contain a general truth, like, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I mean, it makes sense, right? If you set expectations low and then over deliver on those expectations, your clients will think you are a superstar. Right?
Full disclosure: I have subscribed (past tense) to the under promise and over deliver philosophy proudly for most of my career. Much of what I learned when I was younger, if it made sense and if it didn’t cause me any harm — I kept it as a working policy or philosophy. But the world does evolve, and being open to things that are not exactly the way we assume them to be, is a basic ingredient of creativity. So I make it a habit to challenge what I know and what I believe.
The more I evaluate this concept, the more I become aware of its shortcomings. So I have done some research and, sure enough, there is a lot of research, both psychological and business and marketing, that shows that while this is a well intended idea, it is ultimately a poor practice that can actually harm your business and client relationships.
Does Under Promise and Over Deliver Really Work?
We need to look at the idea of how people — our customers, determine their level of satisfaction with our work. BTW, for this conversation, the word customer doesn’t have to mean that you are making money — it just means that you have agreed to photograph someone and give them the resulting photos. That makes them your customer.
For photographers, customer satisfaction is much more challenging than it is for, let’s say, a plumber. If the plumber fixes the leaky faucet at the agreed upon price in a reasonable time period and is polite and doesn’t leave the house a mess, they will generally have a high customer satisfaction rate. The plumber lived up to their promise and the perceived value of that service was relatively high because the client had an immediate need.
The challenge for photographers is that we have the same need to negotiate pricing and terms, and our personality and how we treat our clients is definitely factored in, but the end result is not something that has a black and white definition of good or bad. For the plumber, either the leak is fixed or it’s not. For the photographer, there is a product that, in addition to all the physics of photography, is a product that requires creativity, which is something that is viewed emotionally and subjectively. Not everyone sees it the same way.
Additionally, the need or demand for the photograph is generally not as high as the need to have the leaky faucet fixed.
Don’t forget personality
I did mention your personality being a part of customer satisfaction — this cannot be overstated when it comes to photography. Research has shown that looking at a photograph even years later will trigger the same emotional responses that occurred while the image was being taken.
It’s called nostalgia. A large portion of the concept of customer satisfaction when we apply it to photographers is built on the experience of working with that photographer.
How well did the photographer communicate? Was the photographer personable? How did they make me feel? Did the photographer provide me with excellent customer service? Was the process easy? All of these things impact your clients emotional response to your finished work.
A look at under promising
Now that we are clear on customer satisfaction, let’s start with the idea of under promising. If you’re in business to make money, this is a risky proposition for no other reason than the fact that you are also lowering the perceived value of your work, by promising less. By promising less, you risk coming up short against competitors who are smart enough to promise more because they are willing to consistently put in the hard work to deliver more and maintain a high level of customer satisfaction by delivering what they promise in a way that is also emotionally satisfying.
A lot of photographers would still argue that under promising is a great plan. By under promising, they potentially have fewer customers, but their customers are easier to satisfy and satisfied customers will generally share great word of mouth and tend to be more loyal.
Short term customer satisfaction
But here is the problem with that thought process. They are not considering something called the “short-term customer satisfaction effect”. They are overlooking the fact that customer expectations change and evolve with each and every transaction. Even a customer who starts out very satisfied will eventually be “just satisfied” because their expectations will continue to increase as the photographer continues to over deliver.
One great example of this analogy is the idea of a kids’ allowance. If the kid normally gets $10.00 per week and then all of a sudden, one week the amount is increased to $25.00 — that kid will be ecstatic that week. Then, if the allowance continues at $25.00 per week, they’ll become accustomed to receiving that amount and just be satisfied — not ecstatic.
So, if you work with a new client — promise less and then deliver more — you have now set the bar high by going above and beyond expectations. Now you’ve made it harder to satisfy that client in the future because their expectation is that you will go above and beyond. Research has proven that each time you meet that expectation of going above and beyond, your customers’ expectations will keep increasing, and you’ll have “just satisfied” customers.
It’s just not practical to maintain the expectations that you set by over delivering. There is simply no long — term benefit to this practice. Under promise and over deliver is not sustainable. It’s kind of like a drug. It produces a short term high but then becomes addictive in a way that you cannot maintain.
I understand that old habits die hard, and I have definitely changed my outlook on under promise and over deliver. My problem is that I like the dopamine hit that I get from surprising my customers with a little something extra. Similarly, I like seeing the dopamine hit that my customers get from the surprise of my thoughtfulness. I also like the great word of mouth that I get from very excited, very satisfied customers. So how can I achieve this without over delivering and setting expectations too high.
The alternative to over delivering
The solution that I have for you will not only get the dopamine flowing, but it requires very little effort, and very little time. It will also generate some excellent word of mouth for your business, all while making your customers feel like you are super nice. All of which will have a very positive impact on the nostalgic memories that your client will have of the experience. I’m referring to the memories that trigger return business and that increase the perceived value of your work.
The solution is to make it a habit to take some snapshots during your shoot. Yes — I said snapshots. In other words — NOT epic photos, but photos that could be taken with your phone. Behind the scenes shots. Don’t make a big production out of it, make it quick, and make it fun — keyword — fun. You should make it fun and show the fun. And then, give these photos to your client for FREE within a few hours of the shoot.
When you give them the photos — remember, snapshots, not retouched — tell them that you think they will enjoy them. Let them know that it is ok to post them on social media and say “Just do me a favor and tag me, and please mention that they are Behind the Scenes from our photo shoot today”. Explain that you don’t want people to think these are the finished photos.
They will post the photos which show them having fun at one of your photo shoots. They will talk about it in the comments, and they will be building suspense in anticipation of the finished images.
I know that some of you are already thinking, well, these models that I shoot are always taking selfies at my shoots and posting them, so how does this help me, Joe?
What about models?
I don’t allow models to take selfies during my photo shoots. The same would apply to portrait clients. I am not mean about it — I explain why I won’t allow it, and then I go out of my way to give them something even cooler than selfies. And “even cooler” makes me a cool photographer.
I simply tell my subjects that I don’t allow any selfies to be taken or posted from my photo shoots because I don’t want people to see the makeup and hair without all the proper lighting because it will make the work of my makeup artist look bad. Part of the reason for hiring a makeup artist is to have someone to blame! Just kidding!
Then I tell my subjects not to worry — I will take tons of behind the scenes photos for them and I AirDrop them or text them to them before the shoot is over. I will do cool camera angles, I will shoot some boomerang videos, I will get them to make funny faces — all kinds of stuff. I always do a group shot of myself with the model and makeup artist. The more, the merrier. I don’t change my lighting for these — I don’t set things up — it takes very little effort. At this point, I would describe it as a discipline — I do it all the time.
The photos that sparked this whole revelation for me were a set of family portraits that a member of my mentor group had taken. This was a really nice set of images of a young family with a gorgeous little baby girl — probably between 10 and 12 months old. They were posing outside in front of Dad’s super cool car. I pointed out that the car was there because that was obviously the Dad’s “first baby” and since it was important to the Dad, the photographer could have had some fun after completing the portrait by putting the baby in the driver seat or with Dad in the car and just shooting some fun and cute snapshots.
These are the kind of photos that back in the day that many of our Dads carried in their wallets. My Dad’s was a picture of me in a diaper with a hammer, sitting at his work bench.
So, you see, this is a win-win scenario. All clients like to have cool behind the scenes photos. Even corporate and advertising clients appreciate those images for use in their social media. If those behind the scenes photos and selfies don’t get posted right away — they will probably never get posted. This concept that I am sharing allows you to keep to the promised deliverables of your shoot — not under or over promising — just working hard to deliver exactly what you promised as promised, but this concept carries the benefit of allowing you to be a good human being and doing something nice that takes very little time and effort and even if it does set the expectation that you would do it again at a future shoot… why wouldn’t you want to do it for the free advertising that it generates.
Let me be clear, this is not meant to be a replacement for delivering high quality work, as promised and on-time. It is simply a way for you to set realistic expectations with your clients — and exceed those expectations in a way that will provide you with great word-of-mouth advertising and leave you with a client who can talk about a great client experience with you as their photographer.
As I mentioned earlier, the world does evolve and along the way, we learn that sometimes the methods that have been considered a gold standard for decades, are actually very tarnished brass. Your challenge as a creative will always be to evolve and look for better, more creative ways to do what you do. When you stop looking and trying, you become a dinosaur in your field. We all know how that works out.
It is time to focus on quality work and a great client experience and leave the idea of under promise and over deliver to the history books.
I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman