How to manage customer expectations

Jeremie Bacon wrote this on Jun 11

Managing expectations is hard. Customers often have wildly different assumptions about how their relationship with you should work. They have expectations for how they'll be sold, how you will implement your product, and how you will engage with them to make the relationship a success.

To make matters more difficult, expectations tend to become more demanding over time and frequently go unstated until they aren't met. This is due in large part to the fact that expectations are influenced by past interactions. Despite how challenging it is to meet customer expectations, doing so is critical to the long term success of your relationship. That's why we consider it to be the second of our 5 Pillars of Customer Happiness.

5 Pillars of Customer Happiness

Google "managing customer expectations." We'll wait while you peruse…

What did you learn?

The internet tells you that to manage customer expectations you need to do important things like get a grip on priorities, communicate consistently, stay organized, and under-promise and over-deliver. I agree with all of those points and would posit that most other people do too. Still, I can't help but feel like most of the advice we're given about managing expectations is lacking in substance.

Think back to your most positive experiences as a customer. I'd be willing to bet that your pleasant associations are directly related to your expectations having been so completely met. I'd also wager that the positive experiences you had weren't anomalies. Companies that are great at delighting customers make expectations management a firm-wide priority. They wow customers by planfully taking advantage of every opportunity to meet and exceed expectations in all situations. They understand the relationship between experience and expectation and endeavor to control both.

Making expectations management a company-wide cultural pillar forces you to go beyond the buzzwords and do two very important things. First, to determine what a reasonable set of expectations for each customer touchpoint should be and second, to implement a standard of service around each one. By doing this, you make it possible for your teams to anticipate customer expectations with every interaction. Being in the driver's seat makes it much easier for you to continually exceed your customer's expectations.

Create the playbook

So how do you go about determining what a “reasonable set of expectations” should be? You create a detailed playbook. A customer expectations playbook – or whatever you choose to call it – is a set of written guidelines that articulate how your company behaves and what it does for customers at every stage of the lifecycle. Its sole purpose is to help your teams and then your customers understand the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your relationship at every major touch point. It doesn't have to be a 500-page policy book but it should cover all the bases. The best ones I've seen take up a few pages per customer-facing department.

One way to start putting a playbook together is to map out your company's customer relationship lifecycle. For example, let's pretend yours can be broken into 5 stages: attract, convert, implement, service, and leverage. Once you've identified your stages, assign them to the functional groups that shoulder primary, secondary, and tertiary responsibility for the relationship at each point. Maybe your marketing team has primary responsibility for the “attract” stage followed by sales (secondary) and customer success (tertiary), whereas the “convert” phase is owned by sales, with marketing and customer success in supporting roles.

Once you've clarified ownership at each stage, the next step is to map out the customer interactions that occur as the relationship unfolds. Think about the kinds of expectations your customers should have of you at each point and the corresponding experience that should follow. Continuing the example, when examining the “attract” stage, you need to determine how many times, via how many channels, and in how many ways your company interacts with a prospect. Take into account all of the activities you do to call attention to your brand and consider all of the traction channels you're employing to create awareness.

Are the product expectations your marketing team is creating setting your onboarding team up for success? Is the SLA your sales team is promising prospects in the “convert” stage consistent with what your technical support team can actually provide? If individual teams are introducing friction into the relationship it is exponentially harder for the whole company to achieve desired outcomes. Building a playbook that spans all customer facing departments helps ensure alignment.

Establish service standards

Don't be alarmed if you end up with a long list of potential friction points. That's kind of the idea! The more thoroughly your playbook is mapped out, the better the experience you will be able to create for your customers and the more control you will gain over their future expectations.

Once you've mapped out your customer engagement points, you can get to work building a standard of service for each one. As you create standards, patterns begin to emerge in the types of service you can provide to achieve a desired outcome. Use them to boil everything down to a small number of precepts you can apply across the whole company and build all of your expectations standards on them. Team-specific processes and guidelines can then be built on top of those universal axioms. As we all learned in preschool, sharing is caring. So once you've developed your playbook make sure everyone in your company learns it and knows how to use it. In my experience, it is much easier to benefit from the helpful advice on the internet about getting a grip on priorities, staying organized, and under-promising and over-delivering when your teams are armed with a playbook to help them adhere to the personalized standards that are most important to delighting your customers.

This may sound like a lot of work, and truthfully, getting it right does take serious effort. But the investment pays for itself, resulting in more satisfied and valuable customers. Sadly, most companies won't make the investment which is precisely why yours should. Don't stop at building better products than your competition – build better relationships that will stand the test of time.

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