There is an obsessive emphasis on customer expectations in many businesses. I regularly get asked to explore what customers are expecting of the firm. The reason clients are interested in customer expectations is simple: they want to exceed them and, in order to do so, they need to know what they are. Just about everyone knows that exceeding customer expectations is a good thing, right?
So, let’s get back to customer expectations so we can figure out how to exceed them.
If you ask customers straight up what they expect of your company, they will almost always give you an entirely predictable answer. They will tell you that they expect you to do what companies like yours typically do, and to do so accurately, quickly and with a smile. They reveal classic inside-the-box thinking. We have proven many times that customers expect you to deliver the basics; period. These expectations are only important if you fail to meet them.
You will learn a lot more if you come at the expectations question obliquely rather than directly. I’d ask customers what they like to have happen and what they dread happening; what’s happened recently that has truly impressed them. We can infer from the answers to such questions what would really impress customers, and it’s not meeting basic expectations.
My work in the food distribution business indicates that, if you ask them directly, restaurant managers will tell you that they want to get what they ordered, delivered on time, without breakage, and no backordered goods; not so much to ask, but not particularly useful in identifying opportunities to impress. They want us to do what we do and to do it well.
Here’s how a really impressive food service company behaves. The general manager of a hotel in a small northern city told me that, when a guest checked in recently and asked for a strictly-Kosher meal, he knew he had a problem. He contacted the sales rep for their regular food service company who advised that they didn’t stock Kosher products locally. But not to worry! That afternoon the rep hopped in his own car and drove 50 miles to the regional distribution center and brought back the ingredients for the Kosher meal, just in time for dinner.
Never in customer research would a customer volunteer that he expects a supplier to drive 50 miles to pick up Kosher chicken. That sort of thing would simply never show up in customer expectations research. And that’s exactly why expectations are important, but not the ones customers are able to voice. Exceeding the expectations the customer didn’t realize he had is truly impressive.