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Managing Customer Expectations

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.

Be Calculating

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 meeting them.

If expressed as a calculation, customer satisfaction might look something like this:

Customer Satisfaction =     Your Performance    
Customer Expectations

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 level.

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 ...

Copyright © 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 11. Friendliness
3. Anticipation of my needs 12. To be kept informed
4. Explanations in my terms 13. Follow-through
5. Basic courtesies 14. Honesty
6. To be informed of the options 15. Feedback
7. Not to be passed around 16. Professional service
8. To be listened to (and heard) 17. Empathy
9. Dedicated attention 18. Respect

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.

Copyright © 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 request."

  • 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 expect.

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:
  • 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.
In service standard format, this standard might go like this:
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, Managing Expectations, 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 idea.

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 afterwards."

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.

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Karten Associates
Randolph, Mass., USA

Copyright © 2006 Karten Associates. All rights reserved.