Elle & Company

The Secret to a Healthy Client Relationship

Jamie StarcevichLauren HookerComment

“Sure, I can have the book designed by tomorrow.”

That is an unnaturally short period of time to turn around a proof I felt comfortable presenting. I knew it, my boss knew it, the client knew it, but here we were all agreeing to meet this absurd deadline.

Just a few hours later, I had a proof ready to go through our marketing team to rapidly read before sending to the client. I waited more anxiously than usual, as I knew this wasn’t my best design work. Design elements weren’t properly aligned, formatting was most likely off, and the design was not fully considered as it should have been for an expensively printed book.

My instinct as a habitual people pleaser is to say “yes, I can meet that deadline,” while inside my gut tells me how absurd that guarantee really is. Saying “yes” to these agreements caused pain, forcing me to present design work that was not up to par.

“Under promise, over deliver” is a phrase many claim to adhere to, but it is worth diving into what this tangibly looks like for your business. It is a phrase I first heard while I was a graphic designer at a previous job (with the book project above), and it left its mark on me since then. Not only with how I handle my personal business, but also when working with other freelancers, collaborations, or as a customer myself. 

The Secret to a Healthy Client Relationship - The Elle & Company Collaborative

Under promise, over deliver


At first glance, this phrase is off-putting. Why would anyone want to sell themselves short, and under promise? This implies you aren’t capable of much, and essentially sets the expectations low. Under promising is opposite of what our culture rewards — being the best. 

“Best coffee in town.” “Ranked #1 internet provider.” “Best hotel in Austin.” These marketing phrases quickly establish the brand as premier, but because of that our expectations are high. If this coffee is generic, and not the best, you bet I’m disappointed. 

Rather than making claims of being the best (even if you truly are), it is better for your brand to exceed expectations, rather than to not meet them.

Promises are essential to any business, and here is why.


Why promises shouldn’t be overlooked


At the root of every business, there are a series of promises. If you purchase a book from Amazon, they promise to deliver that book to you. If you book a photographer for your wedding, they promise to show up and take beautiful photos. Whether your business is service or product based, a series of promises or agreements are made. As a result, these promises are expected to be fulfilled. 


Results of a kept promise


The longer I’m in business, the more I come to acknowledge the role psychology has in client/customer relationships. Studies show that once a promise is fulfilled, or an expectation is met, there is an increase in dopamine causing the person to feel happy. And isn’t that the goal for any business?

Fulfilled promises in your business help to:

  • Establish trust
  • Produce loyal clients/customers
  • Build a positive relationship
  • Give all around warm fuzzies once they are fulfilled

What we want to avoid: broken promises


As mentioned above, a fulfilled promise makes our customers happy. What we want to avoid, is unhappy customers. Typically, we try to counteract this through over-promising to meet tight deadlines, discount costs, or any other form of over-promising. 

What happens when we don’t meet expectations, or our promise isn’t kept? Psychologically, our brain has a decrease in dopamine, causing an overall dissatisfaction and frustration. This is a breach in trust with our customer, and violates our agreements.

Broken promises cause:

  • A lack of trust
  • Angry clients/customers
  • A bad reputation
  • Frustration & overall let down feeling

Trust is crucial for every business, and once it is violated, it is hard to recover. It alters the relationship, and the perception of our brand. What once was a positive relationship built on trust and high expectations, becomes reduced to deception. An unkept promise feels like a lie to your customer, resulting in frustration and built up anger.

Aside from business, I’m sure you have been on the receiving end of an unkept promise. We all have those flakey friends or family members, who over promise that they will make it to your party, but inside you know that they won’t. At some point, they have lost your trust, as they haven’t fulfilled their promises. Anger and bitterness start to form, causing us to either speak poorly of that person or respond harshly to their unkept promise. This inconsistency in the unfulfilled promise causes us to retaliate, and voice our frustration.

We don’t want the term “flaky” or any negativity to be associated with our brand, so through taking an “under promise, over deliver” mindset, we can avoid a loss in trust. Over promising not only violates agreements with our customers, but it is bad for the longevity of your brand.


3 ways to build trust in your brand


1  |  Under promise

If a client approaches you with a quick deadline, rather than agreeing to meet it (knowing it isn’t likely), respond with a realistic timeline. Build a buffer for variables, such as client feedback, shipping time, or unforeseen delays. Estimate how long you think the project will take, and add more time. 

Clients often approach me with a short deadline for their brand identity project. I’ve learned to never cut corners in my process to meet their needs, and instead be willing to say no. It takes time to learn what is realistic for your services, but one of the worst things you can do for your brand is to promise to have the final project delivered by a certain date, and to not meet it. Instead, inform your potential customers that the process usually takes “X” weeks, depending on their responsiveness throughout the process. 

Under promise on the deadline, and over deliver by providing your proofs earlier than they expected. This will cause them to feel excited to hear from you earlier than expected, and happy you exceeded their initial expectations.

The highest impact from the “under promise, over deliver” mindset is in the “under promise” phase, as it helps to build realistic expectations, and therefore trust in your brand. So, first and foremost, adhere to under promising. 

2  |  Over deliver

“Over deliver” doesn’t just mean adding small gifts and bonuses to woo your customers, instead it produces a positive customer relationship. These days, it has become the norm to expect the reverse philosophy “over promise, under deliver.” Whether it is a large bag of chips filled with more air than chips or your shrimp pasta with only 3 small shrimp included, we’ve become very familiar with today’s “under delivering” norm.

An example: Lexus cars are known as the top of the line premier vehicle. My mom owns a Lexus, and has quickly become so loyal to this brand. When she raves about their customer service, my ears perk up and tune in to learn from what they are doing right. Essentially, it boils down to “over delivering” in their customer service. Anytime she has to take her car in for maintenance, they not only do a good job, they provide her with an upgraded Lexus to drive around in the meantime… for free. They’ve gone above and beyond in providing their customers with added value, exceeding their expectations. 

The customers can’t help but tell their friends about how blown away they are, all as a result of taking in their car for routine maintenance. Needless to say, this experience is far from common. I don’t see myself lending a Lexus while a client waits for a logo design! However, I’ve learned that each time consumers have such brand loyalty, it typically traces back to the brand over-delivering. In a culture where promises are frequently broken, when we encounter such stellar service we react in awe. It feels as though we are genuinely cared for by the business.

When we encounter situations where we are on the receiving end of “over-delivering,” we don’t quickly forget them. We enthusiastically spread the excitement with others.

Take action: Think of ways you can add value to your service or product. Is there one small extra you can add, that will make the client’s day? Make it personal, and in relation with the services you provided. It doesn’t have to be big, just something to show you genuinely care. If you have a product, maybe this is through the beautiful packaging, or a handwritten note. 

3  |  Give grace

Things happen. Sometimes we can’t meet that deadline we agreed to, or something happened to our staff, technical difficulties or product inventory. Rather than making excuses, own up to it as quickly as possible to the customer. Apologize, and explain the reason (read: not excuse), as well as how you will handle this in the future. If you can’t meet a deadline, let them know when they can realistically expect it, adding a buffer once again to try to exceed the new deadline. 

Allow grace for yourself, things happen. Learn from it, and create a plan on how to avoid these broken promises in the future. 


Under promising, and over delivering builds your brand in the best light. Each time you fulfill promises, and exceed expectations, your brand is associated with trust and positivity. Keeping promises is instrumental to help build a successful brand, and healthy client/customer relationships.


About the Author


Jamie is the designer and blogger behind Spruce Rd. She loves helping bloggers and entrepreneurs get noticed through quality branding, and providing them with practical tips + tricks! She loves all things chocolate, Wes Anderson and The Container Store.

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