The Art of Guiding Expectations

Surprise is a good thing when followed by the phrase, “Happy birthday!” Otherwise, it’s a negative emotion, and when it happens in a customer-provider relationship, it’s a source of dissatisfaction.  Regardless of what you sell or who you serve, your customer’s expectations need to be met for you to succeed (in their eyes).  

In fact, I think it’s an ethical issue: Properly guiding customer expectations is an act of business love. When you’ve gone out of your way to eliminate surprises and give your customer proper guidance for them to distribute, you are being a compassionate person.  

Too often, we over sell our service and under play things that can go wrong.  Likely, we lack confidence that the customer will take the good/bad/interesting into account and still do business with us. Often times, people try and “manage” our expectations with a creative lie.  Example: You make a walk- in reservation at a restaurant, they tell you it’s going to take an hour and in fact, they expect it to be more like 30 minutes.  This way, you will be pleasantly surprised.  Right?

While this might work for dinner, think about how sandbagging can throw off your customer’s internal reporting and management efforts.  If you purposely under promise delivery to give your service some slack, your customer makes plans accordingly — and when you deliver quicker than expected, it’s not a good thing after all.  Also, it’s again an ethical issue, where we lie to customers because we can’t trust them with all the information.

Instead of managing your customer’s expectations, guide them openly and honestly. Here are a few ways to do it, and still land the deals you are chasing:

1.  Sell In Scenarios –  Instead of under or over selling, offer up three potential scenarios, and the variables that determine whether they will come to pass.  Predicted Outcome is your honest assessment of the product’s performance or delivery of the benefits.  You should spend considerable time recalculating your company or product’s performance to be on top of this scenario.  Worst Case Outcome is the disaster scenario, where the benefits may not materialize or worse, there will be negative side effects.  In many cases, this scenario occurs due to something the customer does or the complexity/high risk nature of the service you provide.  Finally, there is the Best Case Outcome.  Stay realistic as you paint this picture, clearly stating what you and the customer need to accomplish to make it a reality.  If your customer’s expectations start to drift to the Best Case Outcome, make sure you are the reality king or queen here, guiding them back to Predicted Outcome.  They will thank you later.

2.  Ask the Right Questions – In many cases, your customer is surprised because you didn’t ask him or her what they needed to know up front, and ongoing.  I’ve worked in the technology and marketing field for over fifteen years, and this answer can vary from customer to customer.  Some are obsessed about delivery dates and others worry about cost overruns.  Once you define their priorities, you can create a regular reporting system, where they are constantly updated about project progress. 

3. Reset Expectations – If you realize that there is going to be a delay in delivering your service, or a lack of performance in the campaign, time is not on your side.  The longer you wait to reveal this to the client, the more they will be upset when they finally find out.  When I was producing the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show webcast (held in ’99), we had set an expectation that the internet event would be a technical success, and also help the company build an email list for digital marketing. Our co-founder Mark Cuban reviewed my project and told me that “the event will crash the ‘Net in less than 10 minutes!”  He agreed, though, that the email list campaign would likely be successful, given the attention the event would generate. 

He then dispatched me to Columbus to reset the customer’s expectations.  Our marketing group even did a mock up of a Wall Street Journal article reporting the event’s meltdown.  This way, we graphically demonstrated the Worst Case Outcome as a likely reality to the client.  “It’s a healthy problem!” they replied, and the event was still held.  And it crashed in less than 10 minutes.  

When I returned to Victoria’s Secret HQ the following week, I was not scolded, but hugged instead. Why? Executives, partners and even board members got the word up that the event was likely too big for the young internet, which was a testimony to the power of the brand.  We over delivered on the email list, and the customer agreed to try the fashion show webcast the following year — at the Cannes film festival.  

Do you have a story about the importance of guiding customer expectations? Share it in the comments and who knows, you might make the pages of my next book.