The Rudolph Giuliani Guide to Setting Expectations


“Under promise, over deliver”. – Rudolph Giuliani

Do you ever feel like you’ve not met a customer’s expectations?

Perhaps you’ve been too busy to respond as quickly as they wanted, or for some reason what you’ve delivered doesn’t meet with what they expected.  It can be a common problem for freelancers and Micro Business owners, and a difficult one to come to terms with, as no one likes to feel they’ve let their customers down.

Is there a way to avoid this problem and ensure you always meet your customer’s expectations?

In his book “Leadership” Rudolph Giuliani shares many lessons from his career as an attorney and time as the Mayor of New York City.  I’ve read several other management books and none have the same authenticity.  For me this is because Giuliani starts the book by sharing his account as Mayor on 9/11 and how every one of the leadership lessons documented in the book were put to test during that day.

The lesson that always jumped out at me was “under promise, over deliver”.  The idea of setting expectations so that your customer never feels like you haven’t delivered.

What are expectations?

When I talk about expectations I’m not just talking about deadlines or time management.  Expectations are the promises that we give to our clients and customers everyday.  They are often the thing that sets our reputation and where trust is won and lost.

Let’s take a few moments and look at some specific examples and consider how Giuliani’s rule of “under promise, over deliver” can be used to improve our businesses, our reputations and to build successful customer relationships.

Expectations in Time

Time expectations are always the ones that trip up most service based freelancers.

The client asks “how long will it take to write that sales letter” or “how long to build my fence” and you give a rough time which you think is about right for what will be involved.  However the client might have a different expectation and take this as the maximum time it will take to have the work completed.  So if you promise a fence in two weeks, but have four days work to finish somewhere else you’ve already created an expectation that you have no chance of meeting.

So taking Giuliani’s lesson of “under promise, over deliver” what should you do?

Be very clear with your customer about the time expectation. For instance rather than saying that the sales letter will take two weeks, say that it will take five hours worth of writing and this can only be started when you have all the information from the client and once you’ve been able to schedule in the five hours.  This gives the client an understanding of the work involved but doesn’t create such an unachievable expectation.  You’d need to go on to explain how long it will be before you can schedule in the five hours and once you’ve confirmed these hours give the client a deadline for when the work will be completed.  Then make sure you stick to it and deliver on time.

Don’t fall into the trap of succumbing to pressure.  Just because your client wants you to get it done in three hours doesn’t mean that you can do it and if you agree you will have created a bad expectation and you’ll let the client down.  If this is a problem that you often face take more time to think before giving the client a timescale.  For instance you can easily say “I can’t give you a time on the spot now as I really need to consider what needs to be done and fit it into my schedule, but leave it with me and I’ll come back to you tomorrow with details”.

If you often struggle to give the right time expectation you could double the time, so plan for ten hours to give yourself a buffer, whatever works for you.  Just make sure that if you give your client a timescale that you hit it.

Expectations in Service

By service I mean the things that make up your relationship with your client and where expectations can cause problems.  Let me give you a couple of examples.

Payments Terms

When I was eighteen I built computers as a hobby and started selling them to friends, then friends of friends and before I knew it I had actual “customers” that I’d never met before.

I agreed to build a computer for one customer, but when I came to deliver it he asked me to take his credit card to pay the invoice.  I explained that I didn’t have a credit card machine and this was before the days of Paypal.  In the end he did pay with a cheque but there was an issue with expectations – he expected me to be able to take cards and was very unhappy that I couldn’t.  I expected him to realise that as it was just a growing hobby I wouldn’t have that facility.

To set the right expectations about payments and terms ensure that you cover everything up front with your customers.  How much will be charged, when will it be due, what payment methods do you except – set the expectations in advance before they become an issue.


Are you available to your clients for telephone calls in the evening and at weekends?  Do you always return clients emails the same day?

It’s very easy to set an expectation with a client by offering a great service when the relationship is young.  But it’s important to manage that expectation as you build the relationship.

Taking a call once in an evening from a client could set an expectation that it’s your normal practice – if it’s not, ensure that people understand when you’re available so that it doesn’t seem as though you communicate with them less as you get busy.

Likewise if you promise to update a client once a day, or once a week on progress and don’t it doesn’t help to build trust.  Always set an expectation that is achievable, not just when you have more time but also when you are very busy.  The last thing you want is a client to think “he’s busy now, he’s less interested in me”.

Remember Giuliani’s rule, “under promise, over deliver”.

Expectations in Value

A few years ago I was reading a company’s quality statement.  They said that they would “strive to exceed customer expectations”.

But do you really want to do that?  Exceed customer expectations?

If you’re a garage selling cars and someone orders a Mini would you give them a Rolls Royce?  No chance.  You don’t need to exceed the expectation of what someone orders, just deliver what you’ve promised, on time, for the price you’ve agreed and with the service you promised.  Meet the expectations you’ve set, don’t try to exceed them.

Trying to exceed expectations will invariably lead to you exceeding expectations for some and falling below expectations for others.  Be consistent.

Expectations in Results

“How long will it be before I see an increase in sales?”, “How long before I reach page one on Google?”.

I often hear these questions from new clients, and they are extremely important questions and considerations for anyone investing in a service.  You no doubt have similar questions in your own business.  When you do be really mindful of the expectations you set.

I can give new clients a really good idea of how long certain activities will take before they see results but I always take care to set an expectation correctly.  I’d rather set a lower expectation and have a very excited client when they see better than expected results than set an unrealistically high expectation, for them still to see good results but feel that they weren’t as good as I suggested.

Remember in all things – “under promise, over deliver.

micro business actionToday’s Micro Action

Are you setting the right expectations with your customers?  Take some time today to go through each of these points and consider areas where you currently set an expectation that you can’t meet – how can you ensure this doesn’t happen?  Make action points to update quotations, proposals, hours of availability, etc to ensure that you’re able to consistently “under promise” and “over deliver”.