The promise you’ve made cannot be kept.

What would you do if you made a promise, counting on the resources available, as per the normal process, but for whatever reason, beyond your control, those resources are not available anymore? The promise made cannot be kept. It is not your fault, but for sure it is not the Customer’s fault either. What would you do in this situation? Let me present you with a few possible alternatives and my comments about each one before I tell you what I would recommend as a course of action.

  • Just cancel the order and tell the Customer he/she is not going to have what they are counting on: At a first sight this option may sound reasonable, as you cannot deliver what was promised, so you should not keep the order, however, as I mentioned, the Customer is counting on that. In this case you would be letting the Customer down and you are frustrating his/her Expectation. This will definitely not make the Customer happy. Depending on the product/service and the context, you may be causing a big problem to the Customer. In the extreme this may even be taken to court. A promise is something very serious, particularly if under a contract. Cancelling unilaterally, without giving the Customer a solution is not an option.
  • Deliver something similar and pretend that you are delivering what you promised: This one also looks interesting at a first sight, as you are trying not to let the Customer down, but it is in fact a very bad solution, because you are most likely actually letting the Customer down, also underestimating their competence to see you are actually cheating and you are creating for the Customer and for yourself a bigger problem, that will actually cost more, from an operations point of view (reverse logistics) and in terms of the relationship with the Customer. The key here is the lack of communication and validation of the alternative solution. If you do the same, but asking the Customer first, you will likely save the shipping (twice) and save the relationship. If you pretend that your doing what was promised, knowing you are not, this is cheating. Your credibility will go down the drain, for good. Most likely others will know about it as well. Big mistake.
  • Tell the Customer you are delivering something else: This solution is better than the previous one, for sure, but it would only work if you give the Customer the choice. You can’t simply decide unilaterally what will happen when you fail on your promise. Communication with the Customer is key. Transparency is fundamental and giving the Customer a choice is what really matters in this case.
  • Let the Customer know that the promise cannot be kept and ask them whether the Customer wants to cancel the order: This is the best scenario compared to the ones above. Transparency is key. You have to take responsibility for your actions and failures. You have to step up to the plate and with courage and respect, communicate with the Customer to ask them what they want to do about the situation. As Jeanne Bliss says in her book “Would You Do That to Your Mother?”, you have to let your Customers go gracefully, so they can consider coming back one day. If you do not let them go when they want, they will feel like they fell in a trap and they will stay away from you forever.

What would I do? My recommendation:


The inability to fulfil your promise may not be under your control, but how you handle it is 100% under your control. The way you choose to present yourself under these circumstances is totally up to you. The way I would react would be the following:

  • First, I would double and triple check whether there is nothing I could do to keep the promise. If we are talking about a product, I would check inventory in other locations, would ask someone to physically check the availability, would check new orders for that product coming from suppliers, would call the supplier to figure out whether a special shipment would be possible, or would even check whether other Customers are returning or cancelling orders for the same product. This is typically a job for what I call the SWAT, a group of highly skilled professionals within my organization, whose job is to solve the Customers problems right away, not looking for long term solutions, but short term fulfilment of the promises.
  • Second, now that we know there is nothing we can do to deliver to the Customer, as promised, then I would look for an alternative. We should find something that could deliver a value, ideally as perceived by the Customer, similar to the original order. Attached to the alternative solution we should bundle an incentive for the Customer to take such alternative, instead of the original order. The idea here is to offer something that the Customer will see as a better value than the original order. The idea here is to provide a “Recovery” the Disney style. In other words, make the Customer remember the solution more than the problem itself. Offering a higher quality product at the same price could be a good idea. Of course all this should happen before the deadline for delivery. If the Customer is waiting beyond the deadline, his/her tolerance to mistakes or failures is a lot lower. The Customer predisposition to be flexible under dire circumstances is inversely proportional to the delay on the delivery to the promise.
  • Third, I would cautiously and respectfully approach the Customer, knowing that the one who failed was you and not the Customer, so, a bit of humility goes a long way in terms of helping the Customer understand the situation. However, you should not present yourself as a miserable person. Show yourself as someone that cares and that you are truly sorry for the situation, but show that you are in control of the situation and that your objective, at the end of the day, is not to let the Customer down. Show that you know what you are doing and that you will do your best to solve the problem. Be careful not to say that you take full responsibility for the inconvenience caused, as this may trigger some bad Customers to take advantage of the situation to gain undue profit. Say that you care and will do your best to solve the problem. Be upfront and clear. Communication is key under this scenario. Explain why you cannot keep your promise, explain what options the Customer has, which are to wait longer for the original product (if ever possible), to take right away the alternative solution, or to simply cancel the order. At this point it is important to make your best to not let your Customer go away, as he/she will likely go buy from your competitors and may never come back. Make the alternative solution very attractive. Make the Customer feel like they are getting a better deal than the original one and get them to prefer to stay. No trap, just better business. In this type of situation, giving the Customer a choice is the best way forward and getting them to accept the alternative offer is most likely the best outcome. However, if the Customer simply wants to go, make him/her go as a friend, not as an enemy.
  • Fourth, this time, make sure you deliver as promised and ideally, send a small gift, beyond the Customer expectation, so they feel good about the whole thing at the end. Once I witnessed an amazing solution provided by a major retailer in Brazil. They sold a TV set that the system showed on inventory, but in real life the TV was not available. The Customer was really upset with the delays, so he went to the store to get his money back. The store manager called the CEO of the company, who talked directly with the unhappy Customer and apologized for the inconvenience and promised to have the problem solved the same day in the afternoon. After that the CEO authorized the store manager to simply cross the street and go to the competitor store, purchase exactly the same product, at retail price, and personally deliver the TV at the Customers home, together with a gift from the store to compensate for the delay and inconvenience. All tax, accounting and warranty related issues were solved later, internally, so, the final solution was seemless to the Customer. All issues resolved internally and the Customer was happy. Never make the Customer pay for your failures.

In summary, understand that you failed, don’t push the problem to the Customer, take responsibility, find a solution, ideally better for the Customer than the original order, communicate empathetically and respectfully, show you really care, give the Customer a choice, let them go gracefully if that is what they prefer, go beyond their expectation to make them happy and remember the solution more than they remember the problem itself and make sure that this time around you deliver to the promise.

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