The point of promises

At home, we have a 'state of the art' gas central-heating boiler.  Hailed as the pinnacle of germanic efficiency and reliability, the thing has been a nightmare almost from the start.  It is 'The Beast', sitting there wheezing and straining in its cupboard, but singularly failing to conjure forth something that resembles heat.  Which, philosophically, represents a kind of denial of its own existence, unless its purpose is all wrapped up in becoming an artefact for future generations of archaeologists to muse over.  No doubt, in a few millennia, my exhortations, written in indelible red pen on the white casing will cause some amusement:  "Ignite, damn you!"

The point is, that this unhappy device came to us with promises attached.  We were told, by the engineer who recommended and installed it, "These babies never go wrong".  I was a tad sceptical at the time about that one, but for the purpose of upgrading from the old system which seemed to be powered by ill-motivated leprechauns, rubbing stones together for warmth, I was prepared to become a Believer.  Of course, The Beast has never really delivered on its promise, and now it sits there, all smug and uncooperative, gloating over the icebox that it has created around itself.

Not content with the first unlikely promise, both the installer, and the manufacturer's own warranty engineers have continued the practice.  Each visit is accompanied by the self-satisfied declaration, "It's all fine now" (it's not), or "That's definitely sorted it" (it hasn't) and...(drum roll)..."I guarantee that you won't have any more problems".

It's wonderful, that word 'guarantee'.  Even though your subconscious is screaming at you, "NO!  DON'T BELIEVE A WORD HE SAYS!!", there remains just enough of a warm glow of assurance to tide you over.  Of course that ephemeral, entirely imaginary warmth is the only bit of warmth that we actually get if we choose to depend upon The Beast.

I think that guarantees, or promises are important.  If we throw them around like sweeties, as a kind of scatter-gun palliative measure, but with no real serious intent on delivery, then, ultimately, we're going to come unstuck.  The financial services marketplace has been riven with this trait in the past, which is why we have to be regulated in terms of our communications.  Human beings and certainly institutions, apparently, cannot be relied upon to keep their promises - but, conversely, those that do keep them really stand out from the crowd.

So, the trick, then, is to make the right kinds of promises, and have in place systems and controls to make sure that we keep them.  We should promise those things which we know we have control over - anything else is a mere wishful thinking, a kind of sleight of hand.  Even if the intention is not to deceive, that may well be the end result.  The right kinds of promise, can be of different shapes and sizes: the promise to return a call, follow something up, send a letter.  And then there's the promise to always be independent and impartial in our advice - that's something we should take great care in keeping.
Kevin Moss, 17/01/2014