Don’t make promises you can’t keep: The Politics of Business


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April 17th, 2015
Charlotte Lawson

Charlotte Lawson joined Hiscox 4 years ago and is a Development Underwriter. Her responsibilities include products and pricing.

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As with politicians and the public they serve, there’s nothing more frustrating for clients than a business going back on a promise – Hoover’s devastatingly misguided promotion being a case in point.

Maurice McLeod outlines the possible pitfalls and how they can be avoided in the latest instalment of our series The Politics of Business.

When a general election looms, UK political leaders rally around with their party campaigning and promoting their policies. As voters make their decisions, close scrutiny can reveal candidates that just don’t measure up.

In a report by the Institute for Government (external link), “two-thirds of the public say they would be more likely to vote for a party that demonstrates how it would implement its manifesto pledges,” with 64% of people believing that political parties in the UK generally do not keep their election promises.

The same can be said in businesses. There’s nothing more frustrating for your clients or customers than when a business goes back on a promise. Whether you’re delivering work to existing partners or pitching for new business, developing trust is an ongoing challenge. If your audience isn't sold into believing you will keep your promises, you're unlikely to win their vote – or their business.

When it comes to the world of business, what can we glean from the ultra-competitive political sphere?

The first lesson is that eye-catching marketing, which promises the world, does not guarantee success. It may deliver a small spike in sales, but this will be short-lived if you don’t deliver. Trust takes years to build and seconds to break. To be sure you are keeping your promises and nurturing trust, you need to be certain both about what you can deliver and what you are saying.

There are a number of places you interact with your customers and each one is an opportunity to build trust. The following advice aims to help you strike the balance between keeping you customer happy without making over-ambitious promises that you’re unsure you can deliver.

Be who you say you are

In many cases, your website will be the first thing a customer sees of you or your company. Make sure you keep your site up to date, deleting any services you no longer provide. Where possible, provide pricing information and answer any questions that come up regularly from customers. Answering queries before they’re even asked is a great way to build trust – it shows you’re thinking with the client in mind.

Make sure you regularly review your branding to make sure it’s still relevant to the services and products your company delivers. Include taglines in this review. Avis’s tagline “we try harder” might sound nice, but the real value comes from living up to such promises.

Only promise what you can deliver

A time when you’re most at risk of making inflated promises is when you’re actively trying to attract customers. Advertising well can enhance your brand and fill your pipeline, but be careful to only promise what you can actually deliver.

Lifestyle footwear brand Skechers had to pay out $40m to over 500,000 customers (external link) after falsely stating that its Shape Up sneakers could help them lose weight. The initially successful ads had featured reality star Kim Kardashian but did not stand up to scrutiny.

Prepare for success

Sometimes a marketing push can badly backfire because promises are made which can’t be kept. It’s possible to damage a company’s reputation just as much from a successful campaign as it is from a failed one.

The British division of electrical goods firm Hoover famously offered a promotion in 1992 (external link)which promised free flights to anyone who spent more than £100 on their washing machines or vacuum cleaners.

The company had a large surplus stock and wanted to free up warehouse space. Hoover drastically underestimated the huge demand for flights, many of which would normally cost many times more than the cost of the appliances.

By 1993, the Hoover Holidays Pressure Group had formed to protest that the company wasn’t keeping its promises. The court cases went on until 1998 and the promotion is thought to have cost Hoover around £50m.

Talk on a personal and human level

Social media provides a wonderful opportunity to interact with your customers on a personal level. Your social media accounts give your customers a direct way to get in touch with you and to comment on your services.

You should try to see social media as a conversation not just another way of selling your goods. If you spend more time on social media listening than talking, you’re more likely to pick up on any concerns that your customers have. Remember to answer any queries promptly and honestly. Your followers will be able to tell when you’re being sincere.

Control the desire to help

Face-to-face engagement with your customers is priceless. By using this, or even picking up the phone, you’re able to give a human face to your organisation and can often deliver in the sort of satisfying service digital or automatic communication can only dream of.

A desire to help is admirable, but be careful of making bold claims to your consumers. Businesses may do so in the hope that this will make them stand out against the competition and attract new business, but these claims are essentially promises you’re uncertain you can deliver. Further down the line, these can seriously damage a business and brand’s reputation.

To avoid unnecessary upset, be wary of overstretching on what you can deliver. False promises are never the answer.

Check out more articles in our running your business hub.