Never over-promise and under-deliver

Here’s a quote from yesterday’s Boston Globe article on how Massachusetts was gearing up to dole out its portion of appliance rebate funds provided as an economic stimulus by the Federal government: “We overbuilt the system to accommodate what we believe the demand will be,’’ said Robert Keough, assistant secretary for the MA Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “We think we are poised to have a very successful program.’’

Mr. Keough then said 50 operators would be available on the toll-free line and the rebate Web site would accommodate 5,000 users at time. “Hmmmm,” I said when I read this, “That doesn’t sound like overbuilding to me.” Since I was planning to try for a $250 rebate to buy a new Energy Star dishwasher, I became nervous, especially since other states had already bungled their rebate efforts with inadequate Web capacity and other problems.

Mr. Keough made a classic public relations error. He over-promised and then under-delivered when the rebate Web site and phone line both experienced huge problems when they opened up at 10:00 a.m., as chronicled in this Globe story. All the rebate money was gone within two hours and demand to be put on the waiting list was so great they closed that list less than an hour later.

Fortunately, after 95 minutes of dialing for dollars on the phone with one hand and clicking on my Web browser’s refresh button with the other, I made it through and got my rebate reservation. With additional rebates from the manufacturer, the retailer and my electric company, my $500 dishwasher is costing me $39, not including taxes and delivery fee. Hooray!

Mr. Keough may argue that it all worked out fine. After all, they had doled out $5.5 million in rebate promises in just two hours! That seems pretty efficient and perhaps they are all patting themselves on the back this afternoon and saying “Job well done!” But the user experience was horrendous and didn’t exactly help build faith in the state government’s ability to handle technology, to estimate demand, or to even know what kind of quote to give a reporter that won’t make you sound like a fool the next day!

Never, and I do mean NEVER, promise more than you are certain you can deliver when you’re talking to a reporter. Mr. Keough’s quote yesterday should have been along these lines: “We have tried very hard to build a system that will meet the demand, but it is impossible to know exactly how many people will try to reserve a rebate. We hope all goes well, but we ask people to be patient when they’re trying to get through online or by phone.”

If he’d said that, Mr. Keough’s credibility wouldn’t be in tatters now with anybody who read his quote yesterday  and then experienced what the system he declared they had “overbuilt” actually delivered today.

Better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around, a good lesson to remember the next time you’re talking to a prospective client or to an existing client…or to a reporter.

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