Why Under Promise and Over Deliver is Terrible

As a freelancer, contractor, or full-time worker you’ve availed yourself to meet a deadline with a specific task at some point. Was the task fully completed to the expectation of the client and on time?

I’m sure that you would say “yes” to this. In fact, I would venture a guess that you would definitively answer “yes.”

If I asked your client the same question, how would they answer?

Would they answer with the same conviction?

When working full-time, there’s often a level of complacency with deadlines and the quality of work. It’s not that the quality is worse or that dates aren’t important. It’s just that when working full-time you see your “client” (namely your boss) on a regular basis and your boss sees you sitting in your chair every day.

This gives the perception that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. And if a date slips, your boss is there to crack the whip until it’s done. Or if the quality of the work isn’t there, the boss is there to crack the whip.

When you are a freelancer or contractor and you work remotely. Your client doesn’t see you every day. In fact, you may never meet your client. So the work and deadline are all the client has.

This phrase “under promise and over deliver” is thrown around quite a lot. Especially in the freelance world.

I think that this is one of the worst statements, advice, or mantras, out there.

Stop Lying To Your Clients and Use These 10 Unique Ways to Over Deliver

Set Expectations

The thought behind “under promise and over deliver” is to tell your client that only a certain amount of work can be done, but then going above and beyond that and delivering to them more than what they asked for.

Don’t get me wrong, I would agree on the fact to give more to your clients or deliver the project early. However, the idea around this concept is to do it intentionally.

For me, it seems a bit disingenuous. If you are intentionally holding back on saying what you will deliver to your clients, you’re basically lying to your clients.

I’ve heard freelancers go as far to say that they will tell clients that it will take twice as long or that they can only do half the website, just so that when they finish early with more they look like a hero.

How would you feel if you were constantly getting the wrong information even if at some point the return was higher than expected? What if this happened more than a few times in a row? How can you plan around this for all the things that you have to do that depends on this?


I’m all about setting expectation early on with clients. Having an open line of communication with your clients is critical. I know when working with the right kind of clients as well, the relationship and trust you have with them go beyond that of this one project. It goes into testimonials, referrals, how they talk about you and your brand when you aren’t around.

If you over deliver once, or even twice, then the client will be overjoyed. However more than that, then they will start to wonder if you are lying to them and start expecting that what you say to them isn’t the truth.

Ways to Over Deliver

Instead of lying to clients, how about doing things that go above and beyond the average freelancer or agency.

Things like sending out a thank you card at the end of a project.

Add in a few zero line items where normally you would charge them for something, but since it only took a few minutes to do, you didn’t.

Offer some insight into their business that you are seeing from the way their website is working or laid out.

Hold educational webinars or classes where you give clients some value as well as the opportunity to ask some questions.

See a pain point in your clients every day and help them make it less painful or eliminated altogether.

As a freelancer, you have a unique perspective on your clients’ business. Even though you are working with them, you are an outsider. You see things that often times your client is too close to.

When people are too close to something, it’s hard for them to recognize it let alone reach a solution to it.

You will look like a hero if you do your job well and be a human too.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t exceed the realistic expectations around the work whether that’s timeline, deliverables, or results. But setting those expectations at a realistic level and not to over promise is the best way to be able to over deliver.

If you finish early, or you get more sales than you thought, these are all great results that really over deliver for your client.

Holding back and saying that it will take 8 weeks to do the website when it really only takes 4, will come back to bite you in the end.

“Under promise and over deliver” really plays into the stereotype of freelancers that a lot of people have. It plays into the idea that freelancers are flakey, shady and unreliable.

Use this checklist to over deliver to your clients so that you are a hero

Be an asset to your clients

It’s really that simple. You can easily stand out from among the crowd by being perceptive to your client and their business.

If you are a designer and you know that the color of the buttons on the website should be different because the current color will turn away folks, then offer that up to them.

If you are a developer and you see lots of manual processes that you know can easily be solved with a few bits of automation, then offer that.

These are the things that clients remember.

These are the things that clients talk to their colleagues about you.

Next time someone mentions under promise and over deliver to you, ask them about specific examples they have in mind. Ask yourself if it feels a bit disingenuous. Ask yourself how you would feel if someone consistently told you false information only so that they look better.

I would love to hear from your ways that you over deliver in the comments below.

/ Jason Resnick

Jason is a WordPress developer helping small businesses, design and marketing agencies achieve their goals by specializing in Ecommerce and increasing conversions. Learn more about him here.

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2 responses to “Why Under Promise and Over Deliver is Terrible

  1. Thanks for this post, Jason. Its very insightful.

    I agree.

    I think freelancers should be honest with their clients, tell them the truth, and be transparent. Whether that’s with regards to timeline, scope, or pricing.
    Its easy to see where the adage of: “Under promise and over deliver” comes in. Freelancers are always being advised to “surprise and delight the client with added value”.

    There’s a problem with that idea though.

    It assumes that enough value has not been provided by the freelancer in the first place, hence the need to surprise and delight. I don’t subscribe to that view, personally. Value can be stacked, yes, but it should be reliable and dependable.

    As you mentioned in the post, clients cant see or supervise freelancers at work. The only way they can gauge value is by the “quality” and “quantity” of deliverables.

    But that was in the old days…in the early days of freelancing.

    In today’s climate, where distributed working is commonplace, other criteria and metrics are now being used to judge a remote worker’s productivity. One of those criteria is the *reliability* of the freelance resource in business continuity planning. That is what one actual business owner told me. Businesses want to be able to plan and meet their targets, and if they use freelancers or remote workers in achieving their objectives, they want to be able to make plans with that resource in mind, and trust that there won’t be any surprises: good or bad.

    No client wants an unreliable remote worker, who cannot be supervised or controlled. In fact the very idea of “under promise and over deliver” is a flip side to the idea of “over promise and under deliver”. Both of them are bad for business, bad for the client, and can put the freelancer in a tight spot. They are also un-scalable, and unreliable.

    In my opinion, a better approach is to be honest, and tell it like it is. Some clients will be annoyed that there is no sugar coating, but they will also love the fact that they can rely on the freelancer’s word, and they will respect the fact that the freelancer calls it straight.

    At the end of the day, businesses don’t run on promises or surprises.

    That’s why I agree with this post.

  2. It’s also bad for the industry because if designer X lies saying a site will take X time, knowing it only takes half that, then when the client shops around, they’ll find designer Y that will do a site in 1/2X but expect to pay half of what they paid designer X. They won’t attribute the decreased work time to designer Y telling the truth, but instead to the “laziness” of designer X.

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