Managing Expectations: Going from Happy Customers to Raving Fans

managing customer expectations is the key to a great experience

Managing Expectations: Going from Happy Customers to Raving Fans

A 5-minute wait.

Is a 5-minute wait short or long?

Of course, the answer depends on the circumstances. Waiting five minutes for a waiter in a busy restaurant to bring the pre-dinner drinks to your party of six is nothing. Waiting five minutes for a hotel clerk to stop chatting on the phone to acknowledge and greet you as you balance your luggage directly in front of them soaking wet from the pouring rain outside is excruciating.

In the former instance, you’re pleased – even if you don’t fully notice and appreciate the efficient service right away. In the latter, you’re enraged. Yet in both instances your wait was exactly five minutes.

Certainly, these scenarios present a clear cause and effect of delivering a great customer experience. In the former, the restaurant is off to a good start. Provided they get the rest of the meal right, they could earn a 5-star online review without doing anything extraordinary. In the latter, everything else about this hotel stay could be routine or even above average, and you’re still likely to leave them a scathing 1-star online review.

These examples are transparent. It doesn’t require a deep investigation to determine what went right at the restaurant or what went wrong at the hotel. Your expectations, whether you were aware of them or not, were met at the restaurant and missed at the hotel.

Managing Customer Expectations

Managing customer expectations is the key – truly the one thing – that will transform how consumers view your organization and its ability to serve their needs. It’s also the key to making unhappy customers happy, and to turning happy customers into raving fans.

Let’s change the scenarios a bit.

Let’s say you and your five friends at the restaurant expected your drinks in under three minutes, and the waiter took five minutes to bring them to you. He missed your expectations. It’s likely the restaurant also missed getting a 5-star review from you even if they got the rest of the meal right.

At the hotel, what if the clerk told you as you walked in that she was on the phone with her mother who was watching her three kids? One of her kids has diabetes, and she needed to give her mother instructions for injecting the child with insulin. Further, she told you this would take five to ten minutes.

Do you see how your reaction to the service you receive at the hotel would change instantly? Do you suspect that if the rest of the stay was just routine you might actually leave a good review?

Customer expectations are all that matter. The level of service in both scenarios remained unchanged, yet because of your expectations, the perceived level of service received did change, didn’t it?

The Power Company

If you’re like most people, you have just one choice for electricity. There is no competition; therefore, no matter how disgruntled you are, you cannot switch power companies like you can for virtually everything else you buy. In my neighborhood, we have Avista. Good, bad, indifferent, we have Avista.

Because of bad weather, we’ve had two major power outages this summer. But unlike outages in the past, Avista didn’t leave us in the dark. (Pun intended.) Instead, they managed our expectations.

Every other company could take lessons in managing expectations from the customer experience experts at Avista. Yes, a utility company that enjoys a monopoly has become an expert in managing their customers expectations. They did this by simply under-promising.

Don’t you mean, “They did this by under-promising and over-delivering?”

Nope. I intentionally left out “over-delivering” because it’s not necessary to over-deliver anything. Over-delivering means going above and beyond. If you under-promise (i.e., manage your customers’ expectations), you don’t need to over-deliver… you just need to deliver. And that’s what Avista has been doing this summer.

During both outages – each lasting longer than a couple of hours – a quick check of the Avista mobile site showed the areas affected and an estimated time when customers could expect to have their power restored. And in both cases Avista had the repairs completed well before their self-imposed deadlines, thus exceeding their customers’ expectations.

Is Avista better at restoring power today than in the past? I have no idea. That’s not what matters. What matters is they are better at successfully managing customer expectations by simply under-promising.

Communication is the Key

Avista’s mobile site does a great job of providing real-time communications to their customers. This is key. If the website didn’t show my outage, I would assume Avista was unaware of the problem. I (and all my neighbors) might jam their phone lines trying to report the outage. If their site didn’t provide an estimated time of completion, I (and all my neighbors) would grow angrier by the minute as we waited for the power to return.

But it’s not just customer (external) communications that are important to managing expectations; the internal communications at a company can be just as critical when service is disrupted. Clearly, Avista has a system in place that allows the internal communication (from their field repair teams, for example) to flow to the customer-facing website; keeping customers informed and managing their expectations. (And keeping Avista from having to staff a call center with hundreds of customer service reps.)

Internal communications that impact customer expectations don’t have to be sophisticated (as they likely are at Avista). For example, imagine if a restaurant kitchen didn’t let the waitstaff know a popular menu item was unavailable until orders started piling in. What would this do to the customer experience for diners that evening?

A Communications Failure

As good as Avista (a monopoly) is at managing customer expectations through solid internal and external communications, US Bank (one of about 5,000 banks and credit unions to choose from in the US) resides at the other end of the spectrum. Let me give you a recent example.

My regular US Bank branch was closed on a Monday due to staffing issues. Okay, I can live with that in this environment; after all, staffing issues are plaguing most companies in America today. However, had US Bank done anything to communicate this branch closing unexpectedly either internally or externally, I wouldn’t be writing about it today.

I arrived at the bank around lunchtime and noticed all the drive through lanes were closed. I pulled into the parking lot and hopped on my phone to find out (1) if today was a bank holiday or (2) if this branch was still open on Mondays. (They had always been open on Mondays in the past, though they have changed some hours and days of operation throughout the pandemic.)

There was no bank holiday; Google Maps showed they were open; the US Bank website and US Bank mobile app showed they were open.

So, I called the branch.

After navigating through several prompts, I rang the branch. No answer.

So, I called their national number. After again navigating through several prompts, I reached a customer service agent who told me the branch was open. I explained I was outside the branch, and it was closed. (She had no idea; her computer was telling her the branch was open.) I asked if she could direct me to the closest US Bank branch to my location that was indeed open for business.

The customer service agent asked for my ZIP Code, then told me the branch I was parked in front of was the closest branch that was indeed open. Ugh.

To shorten this very long story, the agent directed me to a branch she showed as open but warned me to call ahead to make sure they were indeed open. She didn’t patch me through to the branch; she didn’t call the branch herself; she told me to call the branch. Of course, she was willing to give me their number.

Communication Manages Expectations

Imagine if the manager of the closed branch alerted someone at US Bank.

Imagine if US Bank sent a quick email to regular customers of the branch alerting them to the closure.

Imagine is the email contained the location of the three closest branches that were open and their operating hours.

Imagine if US Bank had a mechanism in place to allow their customer service reps to see real-time branch information.

Imagine if US Bank updated the branch’s hours on Google Maps and their own website.

Imagine if the phones were transferred from the closed branch to another branch nearby.

If any of these communications had occurred, my experience wouldn’t have been perfect, but my expectations would’ve been managed. (And I wouldn’t be considering shopping around for a new bank.)

Transforming Bad to Great

No one expects your company to always provide perfect service. Though, everyone expects you to always meet their expectations. The customer is not always right, but they are always the customer; and their expectations are all that matter.

Managing expectations is nothing more than telling the customer what to expect as early in the transaction as possible… and then at least matching those expectations. It really is that simple. Let me give you not-so-recent example.

My wife and I were driving to Boise, Idaho (pre-pandemic) and we stopped in a small-town café for a quick bite to eat. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon and we only had 30 minutes to kill because we already had plans to meet someone in Boise at a prearranged time.

The place seemed busy when we walked in, and we discovered quickly they were understaffed. The manager greeted us and seated us, and she told us about the unusually packed house. She also informed us that the service would be “incredibly slow” (her exact words) because they were shorthanded in the kitchen.

This changed our expectations of a quick 30-minute bite to something much longer. We decided to stay and told our Boise appointment we’d be running late.

Oh, and the manager kept us informed throughout. She also made sure she or our waitress kept our sodas refilled.

We left the restaurant two hours later satisfied and full. We also gave them a 5-star online review.

Why the glowing review? Because she managed our expectations, that’s why. Had she not said anything, or had she tried to sugarcoat the situation with “We’re going to be right with you,” or “We’re a little backed up,” we would’ve likely left before our meal arrived and dropped an undeserving 1-star review on the place.

This manager transformed a bad experience into a great one just by managing our expectations.

The Easiest Way to Explain It

On a scale of 1-10, let’s say your company consistently delivers an 8.

If new customer X expects a 9, you’ve failed to meet their expectations. Congratulations, expect a bad review and little chance of repeat business.

If new customer Y expects an 8, you’ve met their expectations. Congratulations, you have a happy customer.

If new customer Z expects a 7, you’ve exceeded their expectations. Congratulations, you have permission to ask for a 5-star review. More importantly, you’re on the verge of creating a raving fan.

Later, if we asked these three new customers to rate you on that same 1-10 scale, you’d likely get a 2 or 3 from X, a 6 or 7 from Y, and a 10 from Z. Why not all 8s? After all, you did deliver an 8 to each of them.

Because it doesn’t matter what you deliver, it’s what you deliver relative to the customer’s expectations. A 2 or 3 is failing score, a 6 or 7 is average to very good, and a 10 is… well… a 10. Customer X thought you failed, customer Y thought you were good or very good, and customer Z was impressed by your great service even though the result for all three was identical.

While the customer satisfaction efforts at most companies are focused on solving issues (reactive), some companies do work hard to improve the customer experience (proactive). And though the latter is a noble endeavor, if the same effort was placed on managing customer expectations (far easier for US Bank than staffing a branch during a pandemic), the results would not just be happy customers, but raving fans.

Looking for recommended follow-up for your team to help them transform happy customers into raving fans? Check out these free video lessons:

Best Customer Service Lessons – The Customer Experience

Receptionist Training: How to be the Best Receptionist Ever!

Receptionist Training: How to Handle an Angry Customer