Setting sky high expectations used to be the focus for many companies, with marketing teams fighting to come up with the most compelling brand promises. Toothpastes making your teeth pure white in 24 hours, the juiciest steaks in the world served within the blink of an eye, or diet pills making you lose 50 pounds in a week without any extra effort, were common commercials. It was all about creating differentiation by convincing us customers that a particular product was the best one in the market. Overpromising can be a workable tactic in the short term, as a sales booster. But once we move from purchasing consideration to actual consumption, we do know that our satisfaction often is the difference between our expectations of a product or service and how well it is delivered. Too high expectations will thus lower satisfaction. And thanks to social media, customers not being satisfied can easily inform the whole world about their experience, effectively undermining all future expectations boosting attempts from the company.
It has taken us a few decades to call the bluff of overpromising. And the more educated customers of today are much more sensitive to how well expectations are delivered. So it is no longer about setting as high expectations as possible, but about setting the right expectations. And here comes the million dollar question: What is right? This is a fine balance of setting expectations high enough to attract customers, while still ensuring they are at or below your level of execution, so you can both attract and satisfy. To make matters even more complicated, the actual expectation setting is not always straight forward. In fact, you don't set expectations for your customers, they set expectations themselves. This is done through a combination of several factors, where your direct promise is just one of them. Other factors are your price level, your packaging, the customers' previous experience with your product/service, their experience with other similar products/services in the market, as well as assumptions based on what they've heard from other customers. Some of these factors are easier to influence than others, but it is often possible to impact expectations to a big extent if understanding where along the customer journey these factors happen.
The power of information
Two fundamental ingredients of expectations management are realistic (but attractive) offerings, combined with accurate information. A good example are firms offering home delivery - both online and B&M stores - who over the last years have significantly improved their ability to both provide accurate delivery estimates, as well as keeping customers informed about status. A big global furniture store gives their customers delivery windows of four hours - long enough to ensure almost all deliveries happen within the window, but still short enough to make customers feel they get value for money. Internet book stores offer same or next day delivery, with possibility to track the status of the shipment door-to-door. In fact, providing traceability is a great way to manage expectations, as most customers are rather forgiving for minor delays as long as they are kept informed.
Let's be realistic
To conclude, we will see much more of realistic expectations setting moving forward. And companies who know that they still receive complaints about overpromising better take a close look at their customer journeys, and particularly their expectation setting touch-points. Customers are too smart and too busy to accept false promises. We much rather learn that the toothpaste might have a whitening effect if using it regularly for two months or that the steak takes 15 minutes to prepare and you can only get it well done, instead of receiving negative surprises later on. So next time you make adjustments to your service delivery, remember that your customers expect you to manage and meet their expectations.
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