For better or worse, we all have expectations. Sometimes expectations are the result of past experiences. Something happened previously that leads us to expect it will happen in a similar way going forward. Other times, expectations are set based on our vision of the future. We apply our biases, wants and needs, and envision an outcome in our minds. However we arrive at our expectations, they become the desired outcome of an interaction, a product, or a service.
In business, we are forced to deal every day with the expectations of our customers. This can be a monumental challenge as expectations tend to be as varied as the people we encounter. But there are ways both to anticipate expectations, and meet them.
For many business to business relationships, the goalpost has moved as buyers increasingly want more consumer-like experiences in their interactions. The expectation has been set by companies like Amazon and Apple as to what a positive experience should be and business customers now expect the same. As expectations rise because of positive consumer interactions, businesses need to respond or risk failing to meet their buyer's expectations. In a recession when money is tight, businesses will look to other businesses that best meet their expectations.
Types of Expectations
I put expectations into five categories: Persona, Informed, Implied, Stated, and Experiential. Almost always, multiple are at play which makes expectations difficult to understand as a whole. The key for businesses is learning to take control by communicating, setting reasonable expectations, and being consistent. By setting them, you can frame someone’s outlook and put boundaries on how far expectations extend. But to do this, you first need to understand why each type of expectation is different.
Let’s take an example of going out to eat to see how expectations shape the experience. In this example, you decide you’re hungry and want to go out to eat. You’re driving around with no particular restaurant in mind. You only have a feeling of hunger and a desire to satisfy that urge.
Here’s where expectations based on your persona start creeping in. Persona Expectations are those based on your personality and preferences. Maybe you’re an introvert and prefer quiet places where you can eat in peace. Or maybe you’re the type of person that always has 10 things going on at once. You like places where you can quickly eat while checking messages and making phone calls. It could be that you like Mexican food but prefer Tex-Mex to the more authentically ethnic variety.
These factors have nothing to do with the business itself. They are a set of expectations you’ve developed over time based on your personality. You find a Mexican restaurant and your visit is influenced positively or negatively, on how well the experience aligns with these traits of your persona. Was the atmosphere, food, and service in line with the expectations of your persona?
Since you didn’t know anything about the restaurant itself, you arrive expecting it to be the kind of place you would enjoy and feel comfortable. This sets a low bar since there’s a lack of understanding and knowledge. If you don’t have enough information, it’s hard for you to pre-judge the restaurant and set a higher expectation other than what you think you might like.
Not knowing which restaurant to pick, you decide to turn to your phone for help. You launch Yelp, Google, or Facebook to find nearby Mexican restaurants and read their reviews. The reviews begin to paint a picture in your mind of the potential experience. You scroll through pictures of the food, the price points on the menu, and how the interior looks. Maybe you’ve talked to a friend and they’ve made a recommendation about this new place you’ve got to try.
These factors get stored in your brain and form a bias, a set of expectations because of what you’ve learned. If this information fits well with your persona, you form an expectation that this restaurant might be one you’d like. In your mind, it matches your personal preferences and the information you’ve received provides evidence that builds an Informed Expectation.
When you go to the restaurant, you’ll expect it to look the way it did in the pictures. You’ll expect the food and the service to match the description of other reviewers. Walking in, you won’t be a blank slate. You'll be a customer filled with preconceived ideas about what you will experience. The expectation is largely influenced by this acquired knowledge.
Some expectations are implied because of cultural or customary norms. When you walk into a restaurant, you expect to be greeted and offered a table. When you sit down, you expect that a server will show up promptly, you'll be offered a beverage, and your order will be taken. At the end of your meal, you expect your plates will be cleared and shortly after, you’ll be given the check. All of these things we expect because they are customary. They aren’t unique to a specific business but an expectation we’d have of any similar business.
An experience can be derailed if these Implied Expectations aren’t met. If you've ever gone to a restaurant only to find they only accept cash payments, you know what I mean. If that's not a usual and customary practice, by failing follow norms, it can cause a customer’s Implied Expectations not to be met.
One of the reasons you’ve chosen this restaurant is they promised a 45-minute lunch service. Their lunch menu has a limited selection of meals in order to facilitate quick service from the kitchen. You decide that your time is limited and the promise of speedy service sets your expectation for the experience.
This Stated Expectation is the most common expectation businesses control. It’s often part of a brand’s marketing and how they portray their products and services. It’s also where many brands get in trouble because there’s a temptation to over promise and under deliver. If the food doesn’t arrive in 45 minutes, suddenly the expectation isn’t met. Even if the food is good, you’ve failed to meet a customer’s expectation, and the experience is now tainted. The same would be true if the food arrived and didn’t look like the picture on the menu. As a business, you’ve set the bar and the expectation is you’ll deliver accordingly!
Not finding something new of interest, you decide to go back to one of your favorite restaurants. You’ve been there before, like the environment, and have had good food in the past. The expectations you have in this scenario are based mostly on your Experiential Expectation. Other expectations may have to led you to this restaurant the first time. This time, your primary bias is based on your own past experiences.
You arrive expecting things to be the same as they have been in the past. If the atmosphere is different, the menu has changed, the prices have gone up, the food is poorly prepared, or the service is bad, the experience will be compared against past experiences. The bar has been set and there’s a bias towards rewarding consistency. The expectation is that the experience will mirror previous visits. The bar may be high or low but it’s the consistency that matters.
So given all these expectations, how do you manage them as a business? The answer is both surprisingly simple and yet difficult to fully implement. Managing expectations is all about communication. Two-way communication to be precise. You need to clearly communicate with your customers and listen to how they’re communicating with you. We’ll go into more detail in future articles but let’s look at a few communication opportunities.
In this scenario, what would have helped get control of these various kinds of expectations?
- Persona - Does the branding, advertising, atmosphere, etc. match the environment? If you're a fancy, upscale restaurant, does your atmosphere reflect that? If you're hip and trendy in your marketing, is that the atmosphere people will find when they visit? People patronize businesses or buy products that match their personalities. That's the power of branding and why people associate themselves with brands that fit their personalities or aspirations. The challenge is making sure that your product or service is positioned to match the expectations you are setting for the personalities you're targeting.
- Informed - Does your website accurately reflect your business? Are you watching the review sites, responding to criticism, looking for patterns and problems, and addressing them? In this information age, it’s very difficult to control information and people get their knowledge from many sources. It’s critical to stay on top of as many as possible to watch for problems. Respond to issues and to keep accurate and timely information available in the places people are searching for knowledge. Understanding the information available to customers helps you understand what a customer’s expectations will be.
- Implied - When you understand the market you serve and how your competitors are serving their customers, you get a sense of what’s needed to meet Implied Expectations. If it’s customary to return a phone call within 24 hours, that’s going to be an implied expectation. It’s like going to a new restaurant only to discover they don’t accept credit cards. If that’s how you always pay for your dining out, before even trying the food, the restaurant has failed to meet your expectations.
- Stated - We’ve all seen the images of a mouth-watering Big Mac only to order one and discover it looks nothing like the glossy picture on the menu. Marketing often takes liberties by putting products and services in their very best light. Highlighting only the positives and even stretching the truth at times. The problem is that this can create an expectation that inevitably fails to be met. I’m not suggesting that you should show a picture of a squished Big Mac with the special sauce dripping down the sides. What I am saying is to be careful not to push things too far. You want to sell with an understanding that the overall customer experience should closely match your communications. Overstating your product’s capabilities or the service you will deliver and you’re headed for an inevitable expectation miss.
- Experiential - No expectation has a greater impact than the Experiential Expectation. People trust their past experiences more than anything else and therefore consistency becomes critical for meeting expectations. This can be difficult because even if everything is exactly the same, sometimes the person is simply in a different state of mind or mood. This can result in them relating to the experience differently. In those cases, it can be very difficult to adapt to what’s often an unknown factor. But at the very least, maintaining consistency is the key to satisfying this expectation. By definition, they are a returning customer and most likely, that means their previous experience was a positive one. Building on that by being consistent strengthens this bias and builds loyalty and advocacy.
Expectations are difficult to manage because they come from so many sources. But if you clearly communicate what your product or service does and also carefully listen to your customer's needs and feedback, you can work to get alignment on expectations. We’ve all had experiences where a business failed to meet our expectations. Sometimes it was something small that had little effect on our overall experience. Other times, it was a significant mismatch and we left feeling disappointed that our expectations were not met. When this happens, the Experiential Expectation becomes so negative that we often never return or buy the product again. In business, that’s the last thing you want to happen.
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