IN A WORLD WHERE IMAGE IS OFTEN ASSUMED to be reality, where “spin” is applied to political issues as artfully as a pitcher applies it to an impending curve ball, it is easy to see why many in business and in politics work so hard to master the age-old art of shaping, if not manipulating, public perceptions and expectations. There are many variations, but the goal for most practitioners is to ratchet down expectations and then over-deliver.

We see it at work—and play—almost every day. Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees, announces prior to the opening of a four-game series in Boston, “We hope to win two of the four games here.” Everyone knows he's gunning for three out of four, if not a sweep, or surely George Steinbrenner will have his hide. My golf partner tells me his shoulder hurts and his wrist is sore while he's standing on the first tee wagering bets. He doesn't eagerly let on that he shot an 81 the day before. Even my sixth-grade son warns me he doesn't think he will get better than a “C” on a test he took recently. When he got a “B+” we celebrated, even though he probably set me up; he normally gets “A's.”

In each of these examples, someone boldly asserts a view of the future and sets an explicit level of expectation that each believed he would be able to exceed. Some might say they were even gutsy about it: Joe Torre knew he could be criticized up front for his apparent lack of confidence; and my son was willing to bear my initial disappointment with his pronouncement of the “C”. Yet both recognized that we are more often delighted by the fact that someone exceeded our expectations than by the absolute level of the performance itself.

Not every frontline builder sales or service representative, however, is as naturally adept as some savvy politicians or baseball managers in knowing how to handle public opinion—or how to skillfully under-promise in order to over-deliver.

Perhaps it's just human nature. But too often, the people involved in selling new homes instinctively operate under the mistaken belief that they need to please or impress the buyer with an initial set of promises. In many cases, purchase and construction personnel are simply afraid of telling the buyer the plain truth about the normal problems that can occur in buying and building a new house. They are afraid that the truth will stimulate doubt and confrontation. And most of all, they are afraid of losing a customer and falling short of their performance goals.

So without quite realizing it, they promise or infer that “your new home will be perfect,” “we believe in zero defects,” or “our service is immediate.” The result: Builder representatives over-promise in a misguided effort to impress buyers.

In fact, the worst enemy of a goal-directed customer care or construction department is a well-intentioned purchase counselor who is overly anxious to make a sale. On these occasions, this person can unwittingly set traps for service and operations personnel by inferring or overtly promising unreachable levels of service or quality to recent buyers. Rarely do the other members of the builder's construction and service support team even discover why they seem to be constantly digging themselves out of holes, which were dug months before by overzealous sales personnel.

The lesson for every builder: The promises a builder's representative makes today become the standards that must be met (or exceeded) tomorrow.

Expectation Over Performance Clearly, builders can get in trouble by over-promising. But how do more successful builders manage to under-promise and still end up with a delighted home buyer?

Keeping in mind that the goal should not be to merely satisfy—but to delight—home buyers, the core strategy needs to focus on establishing ways to maintain a positive gap between what is expected and what is delivered. There are only two ways to ensure that.