Managing Customer Expectations: The Simplest Way to Create a Great Customer Experience Every Time!

managing customer expectations is the easiest way to create a great experience every time

Managing Customer Expectations: The Simplest Way to Create a Great Customer Experience Every Time!

As you may remember from earlier posts, customer-first companies:

  1. Make “it” easy
  2. Manage expectations
  3. Keep you informed
  4. Keep their word

We’ve tackled the why and how you make “it” easy, so now let’s dive into the why and how you manage expectations. While most readers will likely agree that properly aligning your customer’s expectations with the reality of your service is critical to providing a great customer experience, the truth is that this importance is often lost on frontline employees. For what it’s worth, it’s not that they don’t care about the customer.

The why for managing expectations is clear: misaligned expectations are the number one cause of customer service issues, and thus, bad brand perception. It’s not slow service, it’s slow service when the customer expected fast. In fact, providing slow service when the customer expected slow service is a good experience, whereas providing fast service when the customer expected ultra-fast service is a bad experience. It truly is that ridiculously simple.

For most frontline employees, managing expectations is barely an afterthought. Again, it’s not that they don’t care about the customer, it’s that:

  1. They assume the customer’s expectations are already aligned with what the employee plans to deliver,
  2. They don’t understand how critical it is to manage expectations, or
  3. They don’t know how to properly manage expectations.

Regardless of the reason, the result is almost always a poor customer experience. Of these reasons, assuming the customer’s expectations are already aligned with reality is the most annoying because it’s the most pervasive, yet also the easiest to avoid.

Their Interpretation, Not Yours

One of the easiest ways to explain this common misalignment is to consider how ambiguous terms like soon, right away, as soon as possible, or in just a minute set an expectation in the customer’s mind that is often vastly different from what your employees intended.

Given we are all customers of something, what would be your expectation as the customer in this common restaurant exchange:

You: “How much longer on our order?”

Server: “Should be just another minute.”

If you’re a typical customer, your expectation is that you’ll have food in front of you in one or two minutes. Sixty seconds; 120 tops. After three minutes, most customers are becoming annoyed. After five minutes, many are growing angry. After just seven minutes, some are leaving the restaurant or ready to stiff the server when it comes to the tip.

To the server, “just another minute” could mean anywhere from 60 seconds to ten minutes. They weren’t intentionally lying to you; they just had no concept of your expectations as the customer; your Customer Clock.

The Customer’s Clock

The easiest and most important customer expectation your team should learn to control is what we call the Customer’s Clock.

Basically, as the seller, your team’s clock is different from the customer’s. More importantly, only the Customer’s Clock matters. Your team’s clock is not important; in fact, reality is not important. Your team’s clock might be reality, but the Customer’s Clock is in their head. Oh, and unless you clearly reset it, the Customer’s Clock begins with only two settings: Right Freaking Now, and This Is Taking Forever.

In the example we just used, had the server employed more precise verbiage like, “it could be another five to seven minutes” instead of, “should be just another minute,” your expectations would’ve changed because your Customer Clock would’ve been properly reset.

Imagine if the server reset your Customer Clock to five or more minutes and the food arrived in three? Your perception of the service you received would be improved; perhaps you would even rate this as a great experience. It all came down to your expectations as the customer. When these expectations were aligned with the server’s, the experience was good to great. If they were misaligned, the experience was poor.

Simply put, your team’s speed only becomes an issue when it’s misaligned with the customer’s expectations. Therefore, the only goal in managing the Customer’s Clock is to properly set it or reset it, as necessary.

Let’s give you a quick example of a company successfully resetting the Customer’s Clock.

Steve and his wife were about two-thirds of the way through a seven-hour drive to visit their sons, when stopped at a small town café for a bite to eat. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon on a Saturday, and they had about 30 minutes to kill. As they walked in, they noticed the place was quite busy.

The manager seated them and immediately informed them that not only did they have a packed house, but that they were severely understaffed. She explained that “The service will be incredibly slow” (her exact words), and that the kitchen would be slow, though she would keep them informed throughout.

She reset their Customer Clocks. Initially, they only had 30 minutes to kill; though based on the manager’s warnings, they made changes to their schedule to allow them more time at the restaurant. Fast forward two hours, and they left full and so satisfied with both the food quality and the service, that Steve gave them a five-star online review.

Why did Steve give them a great review for a meal that took four times longer than he originally expected? Because she managed their expectations from the beginning and reset their Customer Clocks. [If you were paying attention, you also realized she kept them informed and kept her word by doing so – two of the four deliverables customer-first companies accomplish better than the rest (in addition to making “it” easy and managing expectations.)]

Of the four deliverables common among customer-first companies, managing expectations is by far the most powerful. In fact, moving from misaligned expectations to properly aligned expectations can instantly improve your company’s brand perception with your customers.

Imagine if she hadn’t said anything when she seated them. Imagine if she had just gone through the motions and said something like, “Your server will be right with you.” They likely would have been livid, and the restaurant could’ve received a one-star review. Instead, she aligned their expectations with the restaurant’s reality. Given this, they settled in, changed their plans, and enjoyed the incredibly slow service.

Our Service is an 8

One of the simplest ways we’ve found to explain the importance of managing customer expectations to frontline employees is to do an exercise we call Our Service is an 8.

Our Service is an 8

Imagine if what we routinely delivered was an 8 out of 10. Pretty good, right? Better than the competition, isn’t it?

Now imagine if the customer expected a 7, and we delivered an 8. Outstanding, correct? This was a great customer experience, the kind that will earn us repeat business and five-star online reviews, right?

Now imagine if the customer expected an 8, and we delivered an 8. Still good, right? The customer expected us to be very good, and we were – congratulations all the way around!

Now imagine if the customer expected a 9, and we delivered an 8. What was the customer’s perception of the experience? What is the likelihood they would be dissatisfied with the experience of doing business with us?

We delivered an 8 consistently in all three instances, though we exceeded the customer’s expectations in the first example, met their expectations in the second, and failed in the third. Yet, in all three encounters our service was the same – an 8 out of 10; something we all agreed was pretty good. The reality is that our level of service is irrelevant if it’s below what the customer is expecting.

The goal of this exercise is to create an understanding across the organization that what we deliver is only considered good if it meets or exceeds what the customer was expecting. Therefore, we have two choices: we can always deliver a 10 (almost impossible unless you’re Chick-fil-A) or manage the customers’ expectations (something every frontline employee can do routinely if they try).

Best Time to Set Expectations

When is the best time to set customer expectations? The answer should be obvious to all: as soon as possible.

In the small town café example we used earlier, the manager informed the guests the service would be incredibly slow during their first interaction with her. She didn’t wait until she brought them water. She didn’t wait until she saw them annoyed (this never happened because of her ability to manage expectations), and she didn’t wait until they were stomping out of the place (because this too never happened). If this was a series about ridiculously simple leadership, we’d praise her courage to personally attack an issue head-on; however, because this is a blog series about ridiculously simple customer experience, we’ll simply applaud her ability to properly set expectations at the very first opportunity.

Simply put, she aligned her customers’ expectations with her team’s realities, and this made all the difference.

This is the fifth post in a series of excerpts from Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience, a book written for everyone in any organization that has customers. That is, it was written for those in both the public and private sector; and for everyone in these organizations. From the frontline, customer-facing employees to the CEO and board of directors.

Each chapter in Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience concludes with Key Learnings and Chapter Exercises to make certain you and your team take the efficient path to becoming Customer-First. As you’ll learn in this ridiculously short book, building and maintaining a CX juggernaut isn’t hard… in fact, it’s ridiculously simple. Buy it now on Amazon!