This topic is the
focus of my books, Managing Expectations: Working with People Who Want More, Better, Faster, Sooner, NOW! and Communication Gaps and How to Close Them.
For additional information, contact me by
The following articles will help you manage
expectations in your organization.
If you're a service provider, customer expectations can pose a major
challenge. That's because expectations are wondrous creatures: They grow,
they shrink, they change shape, they change direction. They shift
constantly, and they shift easily. And how satisfied (or dissatisfied) your
customers are is determined by these expectations and your performance in
If expressed as a calculation, customer satisfaction might look something
Customer Satisfaction =
Of course, customer satisfaction is influenced by a complex interplay of
factors; it's hardly as simple as plugging numbers into a formula and
calculating the result. Nevertheless, this calculation serves as a
reminder that your customers' level of satisfaction can be affected by
changes in either their expectations or your performance. That means you
have to pay attention to both.
And that's where things can get tricky, because how you perceive your
performance may differ from how your customers perceive it. In fact,
discrepancies between your perceptions and theirs would not be at all
unusual; I routinely encounter such discrepancies when I interview a
company's service staff as well as its customers. So, even if you're
working yourself to the proverbial bone, if customers view you as
unresponsive, then you are unresponsive in their eyes.
The reverse is also true: If you really are unresponsive, but
customers perceive that you deliver superior service, then you do (in their
eyes), and you gain little by trying to convince them otherwise. I'm not
advocating bumbleheaded service, of course, but merely emphasizing that
customer satisfaction is driven by their perceptions, not yours. Their
perceptions are their reality, and any overlap between their view of the
world and your own may be simply one of those delightful coincidences.
Watch for changes
If your customers' satisfaction level is changing, find out if something
has happened, either at their end or yours, to affect their expectations or
perceptions. Whether that change in satisfaction level is skyward or in the
direction of the bottomless pit, analyze what's happening. If satisfaction
is rising, find out what you're doing right, so you can keep doing it; if
satisfaction is slithering downward, figure out how to reverse the
situation before it falls off the chart.
Make sure you don't get so wrapped up in delivering services that you lose
sight of your customers' expectations and how well they think you're
meeting them. Be conscientious in observing what's going on in your
customers' environment and your own that could affect their satisfaction
Just a caution from the We Can Always Dream Department: If you're among the mathematically inclined, don't make the mistake of concluding from the
above formula that if customer expectations fall toward zero, customer
satisfaction will rise toward infinity. Math works that way, but customers
don't. Sigh ...
2009 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com
What Do Customers Want, Anyway?
Have you ever had customers who want the universe, gift-wrapped and
delivered yesterday? Was that a resounding YES I heard?
Fortunately, most customers don't demand the impossible. In fact, what they
want is exceedingly reasonable. And what's that? Well, switch for a moment
from your service provider hat to your customer hat. When you're a
customer, what matters to you? What matters when you're at the car dealer,
the doctor's office, or the airport? What matters to you when you're on the
phone ordering flowers, or awaiting technical support, or ordering a
million-calorie pizza and a zero-calorie beverage?
Over the years, I've asked many hundreds of participants in my customer
service seminars what matters to them when they're the customer. Their
responses are overwhelmingly similar, demonstrating that most of us want
the same things when we are customers: We want to be treated with respect.
We want to be listened to. We don't want to be bounced around or ignored or
treated like dummies.
Product and process
Now, switch back to your service provider hat and think about it: Both the
product and the process are important to customers. The product refers to
the solution, system, response, resolution, deliverable or result. Whatever
form the product takes, customers want it to work properly, to meet their
needs, and to have that elusive quality of, well, quality. This is the
technical element of service, and you're not likely to have happy
customers without it.
But excelling in the technical element alone may not keep customers coming
back unless you also attend to the process. In fact, for many customers,
the process is more important than the product. The process concerns how
customers feel they've been treated. This is the human element of
service. And touchy-feely though it may appear, the human element is
exceedingly important in achieving a high level of customer satisfaction.
The following list presents the some of the responses I've received from
participants in my seminars. Notice that the majority of the items pertain
to the human element.
When I'm a Customer, I Want . . .
1. To be taken seriously
||10. Knowledgeable help|
2. Competent, efficient service
3. Anticipation of my needs
12. To be kept informed|
4. Explanations in my terms
5. Basic courtesies
6. To be informed of the options
7. Not to be passed around
16. Professional service|
8. To be listened to (and heard)
9. Dedicated attention
Sloppy service with a smile
Does that mean that it's OK to give customers incorrect information as long
as you're empathetic, friendly, and respectful in doing so? Obviously not.
But providing correct information may not be nearly as effective as correct
information accompanied by empathy, friendliness, and respect. Focusing on
the process is a way to invest in a relationship. In the customer
interviews I conduct in my consulting work, I continually find that
customers who appreciate the way they've been treated uncomplainingly
accept occasional delays and glitches. In other words, an emphasis on the
human element can give you some leeway in delivering the technical element.
It may be that customers who demand the universe gift-wrapped and delivered
yesterday just need a strong dose of respect, attentiveness, and courtesy.
Before you start searching for universe-size wrapping paper, give it a try.
2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com
People always seem to want to know "when." When will my new furniture be
delivered? When will my printer be fixed? When will my call for software
support be answered? If you provide customer support, service standards
provide a formal way to communicate this information.
Service standards are expectations-managing statements used to minimize
uncertainty about when some specified event will occur. The "when" may be a
specific date or time, or more often, a time frame within which the event
will take place. Consider these sample service standards:
- For acknowledging customers' voicemail messages: "We will acknowledge
messages to the support line within one hour of the call."
- For responding to service requests: "We will provide written feedback
on the action we will take within three days of receipt of a service
- For describing variations in service level: "We will aim to resolve
problems with products on the A list within eight hours and products on the
B list within one week of receiving a request for assistance.
Your own time frames may differ. The issue is not the specific time frames,
but whether you have established service standards and communicated them.
When customers complain about poor service, it's often because of an
absence of service standards that let them know what they can reasonably
A wait state
The preceding three standards, like most service standards, are intended to
handle routine or recurring situations. But what about situations in which
you don't know what the time frame will be? For example, think about the
last time (1) a malfunction occurred that had business impact, (2) you
didn't know what caused the problem, yet (3) customers immediately began
demanding to know when service would be restored. In such a situation,
what's a non-psychic to do?
An airline demonstrated an excellent service standard for this type of
situation on a flight I once took, or rather waited to take, since
departure time had passed and we were not yet upward bound. Onto the
intercom came the Person in Change of Giving Passengers Bad News. He told
us that they were experiencing a mechanical problem and didn't know how
long it would take to resolve. But he said he'd give us the status every 15
minutes, and would do so even if he had nothing new to tell us.
Too often in situations like this one, customers are told nothing at all.
Yet in times of intense uncertainty, people have a stronger-than-usual need
for information. Happily, the flight attendants knew that giving us some
information was better than letting us sit there, fuming, grousing,
complaining, and (not incidentally) driving them crazy. Since they couldn't
tell us when the delay would end, they did the next best thing: they told
us when they'd tell us whatever they did know.
A service standard for waiting at the gate
Note the form this service standard took. Airline personnel told us:
In service standard format, this standard might go like this:
- We will keep you informed of the status of the problem.
- We have a timetable for keeping you informed.
- We'll follow that timetable even if we have nothing new to tell you.
During delays, outages and malfunctioning whose duration is unknown, we
will give customers a status update on a specified schedule. We will inform
customers about this schedule, and we will adhere to it even if there is
no change in status.
Unlike service standards for routine service, it may be wise to keep this
kind of standard in reserve till it's needed, so as not to worry customers
about events that may never happen. Still, it pays to be ready. That's one
of the nice things about service standards: the situation they're intended
to address may be plagued by uncertainty, but there's no uncertainty about
what to tell customers.
Better late than ... ?
Is a status announcement every 15 minutes better than departing on time?
Not at all. And would it have been acceptable if every 15 minutes for the
next six hours, we were told, "Sit tight. We still don't have a clue." Of
course not. Clearly, this type of service standard has a practical limit.
But when uncertainty-creating situations occur, most customers would rather
have a little information than none at all.
What is the status of your service standards? If they're incomplete (or
nonexistent), when are you going to take action?
Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com
The Best Mislaid Plans
If you want people to meet your expectations, you have to
communicate what you expect. Otherwise, you could fall victim to
a miscommunication. As author of the book,
Iím my own best case study.
Hereís an example. A faraway friend named Jack and I wanted to
discuss some ideas while at a conference we were attending.
(Jackís not his real name; I want to spare him the ignominy of
being the butt of my miscommunication.) As the conference got
underway, he said, "Letís do a meal together." Good
A while later, as I passed Jack during a break, I said,
"Dinner?" He said fine.
It was customary at this conference for dinner-mates to meet
in a first floor lounge and leave between 5:30 and 6:00 in order
to be back in time for the evening events. At 5:30, I went to the
lounge to wait for Jack. I wasnít in any rush. I had a book to
read, and I knew heíd show up by 6:00. Except that he didnít.
Shortly after 6:00, a colleague invited me to join a group
just leaving for dinner. I declined, explaining that I had dinner
plans. At 6:15, I checked to see if Jack had left a phone message
in my room. He hadnít. At 6:30, a friend returned from an
off-site session. I asked if Jack had been at that session.
"Yes," he told me, "and they all went to dinner
What? Had I been stood up? Forgotten? Abandoned? While I dined
on munchies that Iíd stashed in my room, I created a mental list
of acceptable explanations for Jackís unacceptable behavior.
I missed one explanation, though. When I saw Jack again two
mornings later, he said, "I donít know if weíre going to
make it to dinner together. Something else has come up everyday
so far." And he recited the meetings and appointments that
had occupied his dinner hours each day. Thatís when I realized .
When I had said "Dinner?" I understood us to be
making plans for dinner that evening. That was obvious ó but I
now saw that it was obvious only to me. He, meanwhile, thought I
was suggesting the specific meal weíd have together, not the day.
From his perspective, we hadnít yet selected the day. We each had
an understanding, but our understandings didnít match.
Hereís the lesson: When something goes awry between two
parties, itís a common reaction for each to hold the other
responsible. Each sees the other as having done something, or
having failed to do something, that led to the unsatisfactory
result. Itís also not unusual, as I proved in this situation, for
one party to find fault with the other, when the other doesnít
even realize thereís a problem.
More often than not, the problem is due to a minor
miscommunication, something thatís easy to avoid. In particular,
when you reach an apparent understanding with someone, do what I
should have done and confirm that both of you have the
same understanding. Clarifying what you have agreed to
helps to ensure youíre in sync. If I had simply asked for
confirmation of our dinner plans, I would have learned that we
had no such plans!
How can you apply these ideas in your work? Never assume that
you and the other party have the same understanding of what
youíve discussed. Ask questions. Check and doublecheck. State
your understanding and ask if youíve got it right. Conclude with
a restatement of what youíve each agreed to.
Jack and I finally got a brief chance to talk the final
morning of the conference. I havenít told him about this
miscommunication, so he doesnít know that I have forgiven him for
(my misguided belief that he was) standing me up.