About Them Customers’ Expectations


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I wrote a blog post at TheSocialCustomer.com trying to define what a Social Business is.  I am quite certain I am far from done with the definition, but there is one part in the post that I want to expand a little bit more: customers’ expectations.

I wrote that for a Social Business (actually, it really means any business with aspirations to leverage social channels) you have to over-deliver to customer expectations.  I did not say you have to meet them, I did say you have to exceed them.  Some of my peers in the #SCRM Accidental Community were not too thrilled with the idea (apparently, not sufficiently upset to comment on the blog post either) of having to exceed expectations, telling me that meeting them should be sufficient as long as it is done in a consistent basis.

I disagree, and here are the three reasons I disagree:

1) Competition – if you only meet your customers’ expectations, then your competitors will find out what they want and take them. It’s very simple, people’s loyalty (in most cases just rational with few exceptions — see next point) are for purchase.  What’s that? You want an extra 10 days to pay your credit card bill and the rigid bills at the your bank won’t allow it?  Well, guess what I got for you — an extra 15-days to pay your credit card every month!  Poof, customer lost — Loyalty can be bought.

2) Loyalty – I wrote before how loyalty becomes an emotional thing over time when you over-delivered to your customers.  The consistent over-delivery is what creates a bond with the experience that makes customers move from rational to emotional loyalty. We are more willing to forgive a bad experience from Beloved Brands than from any other brand.  If the Ritz Carlton screws up (yes, it happens) and they say they will make it up to you, you better believe it till blow your expectations of “making it up to you” out of the water.  If AT&T says they will make it up to you — well, you get the picture.  Which brand generates emotional loyalty in every interaction? Beloved Brands — the ones that are out to exceed customers’ expectations.

3) Long-term Strategy – Interesting thing about Customer Service and Experiences, they are not a destination; it is something you will continue to do until the day you close your business.  Planning for meeting your customers’ expectations, as opposed to exceeding them, is like planning to make it to the end of the month with your paycheck — you can get what you want done in the immediate term, but you cannot prepare for the future or properly accommodate unexpected occurrences.  If something happens that requires you to go beyond your current setup you won’t have the bandwidth or the capacity as your systems and solutions are only set to meet present  needs.  Sounds like it would never happen?  Think again.  When JetBlue was faced with apologizing for keeping people in a locked airplane in the tarmac for some ungodly number of hours (was it eight? 12?) a couple of years ago, they could’ve just said we are sorry, here is a voucher — as most other airlines would’ve done.  Instead, they changed their systems and procedures to make sure it never happened again.  Customers, accustomed to what the airline industry had to offer, never expected that.  As a result, over 90% of them intended to continue flying with JetBlue.  Trust me, JetBlue did not just want to meet expectations – they wanted to blow them our of the water.

Do you want your brand to become a Beloved Brand? To have emotional loyal customer? To have your service commitment work as your marketing campaign?  Your plans should be to exceed your customers’ expectations then.

Am I wrong? What says you?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Esteban Kolsky
ThinkJar, LLC
Esteban Kolsky is the founder of CRM intelligence & strategy where he works with vendors to create go-to market strategies for Customer Service and CRM and with end-users leveraging his results-driven, dynamic Customer Experience Management methodology to earn and retain loyal customers. Previously he was a well-known Gartner analyst and created a strategic consulting practice at eVergance.


  1. Hi Esteban

    You are wrong. But you are right too. Let me explain.

    You are wrong when you say that you should aim to exceed customer expectations. What you are talking about is Customer Delight. This has two components: surprise and over delivery against expectations. The difficuty with this strategy is that today’s delight easily becomes tomorrow’s expectation. And once it becomes an expectation, the surprise has gone. And with it the delight. But the costs have not gone. They are still there. They are now part of your standard operating costs.

    You are right when you say that you should aim to exceed customer expectations too. Just not routinely. It is appropriate to try and exceed customer expectations in exceptional circumstances. Such as after a serious service failure. Locked in a smelly Jet Blue airplane on the tarmac for hours on end with not so much as a pizza to go round, for example. Or for just being a Sprint customer! Research shows that the zone of tolerance (the difference between the minimum acceptable level of service and the maximum expected level of service) both narrows and is raised following service failure. A bit of customer delight might be just the thing to recover the customer. Just don’t make a habit of it.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald said that a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Or is it just Orwellian doublespeak?

    The earlier CustomerThink forum dialogue on What Does It Take To Delight Customers? from 2006 pretty much covers most of the bases.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  2. Esteban,

    I did comment, just not in too much detail. I am on the fence on the meet versus exceed debate. But, just like everything else, as well as Graham’s comments, it depends.

    Considering the ‘vast and fast’ nature of Social, I believe that expectations are a bit misaligned to begin with. My point is that while corner cases are easy fodder for this debate, the 80% of everything that occurs in the middle is harder to navigate. There is the expectation associated with talking, versus the expectation of fixing – most SLAs are for first contact, not resolution.

    Take Graham’s point on the zone of tolerance, when you talk about mainstream products and services this zone is extremely narrow (no statistics, opinion) In this case, the difference between meet and exceed is close from a customer perception point of view but possibly very expensive from a company point of view.

    Mitch Lieberman

  3. I agree with Graham. It’s difficult to sustain a strategy of always exceeding expectations and “delighting” customers.

    Especially if the marketing folks start promoting that the company will now be exceeding expectations.

    My interview with Jan Carlson that is well worth a read:

    Carlson spoke about the need to empower frontline people and unleash their creativity.

    I used to give an example of how we in the tour operating company where I started my career surprised our customers by putting baskets of fruit or a bottle of wine and a hand-written card into their room when they came to the tourist destination. Everybody got extremely happy, because nobody expected it and they all thought it was a kind of individual service to them. The year after, our advertising manager, who must not have been related to Einstein, wrote in the brochure, “You should know that when you travel with our company, there’s always a surprise waiting for you in the room.”

    It seems to be a tricky balance. Creating a culture that encourages risk-taking and creativity in surprising customers, without setting a new standard.

  4. Actually, I have done quite a bit of empirical research in this area – to date, however, I have mostly just published the method and a pilot study (see Vargo and Lusch, 2005) “Consumer’s Evaluative Reference Scales and Social Judgment Theory: A Review and Exploratory Study,” in Review of Marketing Research, 1.

    I think, as is common because of the flawed disconfirmation-of-expectations model, the discussion is confusing expectations and desires (what is desired). My research suggests that the latitude of acceptability in an evaluation is anchored (not bounded by, as in the zone of tolerance model) expectations and desires, probably with the former serving as something of a reality check for what is desired – an ideal point, thus more is not always better. Thus, it is normally advantageous to exceed expectations but not (at least significantly) what is desired.

    The latitude of acceptability can expand and contract but most of the expansion and contraction is with the latitude of noncommitment (a term adopted from work of Sherif and colleagues), a neutral latitude between acceptability and objectionability. This latitude is typically very wide, as I expect it should be for everyday evaluations (e.g., most routine purchases), but I expect it narrows or maybe vanishes in critical situations (thus the 80/20 rule suggested by Mitch), though I have only confirmed this in a pilot study so far.

    The bottom line is that exceeding expectations does not keep “raising the bar” – it actually is good, up to a point. On the other hand, exceeding desires is a problem – think in terms of too much friendliness by a waiter in a restaurant or too much attention by a salesperson in a department store, what I call hyperservice

    Steve Vargo
    Professor of Marketing
    University of Hawaii
    Twitter: SteveVargo

  5. I also agree that customers get used to consistent over-delivery and start taking it for granted.
    From the theories of conditional learning we can see that random reinforcement is far more effective than regular – if customer knows that his expectations are, from time to time, far exceeded, he will be looking forward to the next surprise. When he knows that he’s always going to get something extra, that’s not surprise anymore.
    As a psychologist, I always like to compare business relationships with private ones, because the same principles can be applied to any relationship. When you are in a succesful relationship with your partner/husband/wife, it works very well if both of you see in it some benefits – you give/receive them – that are of great importance for you and you believe that you could not find it elsewhere. (In a way, you could call this loyalty.) And if you now think of the gifts or surprises that you give to each other – it is exciting and interesting as long as they are unexpected. When you start giving the gifts every single day, he/she gets accustomed to it and soon you won’t get feedback such as “thank you” or “that’s really nice of you” but more of “Why didn’t I get my gift today? That’s really rude of you.”
    “Exceeding expectations” every day in the same way always turns into regular expectations.

  6. Graham,

    Thanks for the part about being right (and I will ignore the other part, since I know I am right in my proposal here).

    Here is the part that I don’t agree with you. I am not talking about customer delight, or a WOW experience or any of those fads. My proposal goes further (even it may not have been proven before in academics, I have clients that have tried it and succeeded with it).

    The core idea is to plan and execute to exceed expectations (which, of course, includes some methods for constantly monitoring expectations, needs, and wants — something that social tools allow us to do very well, or at least better than surveys have done in the past) — always. Will you fail to meet expectations or even exceed them sometimes, you bet. You will also fail to do so if you just go out to meet expectations. With the method I am proposing, if you fail you are already ahead of where you would be if you failed when “just meeting”.

    While I agree with you on service recovery, I am not a proponent (as you are not per your writing) of abusing it — even using it in more than exceptional cases. I am hoping to leave service recovery to truly exceptional cases.

    Alas, there is also research that shows that customers that have their expectations exceeded in regular interactions become more loyal — of the emotional type (the type we want, if you remember the discussions we had back then on this). Customers that have their expectations simply met remain rationally loyal (in other words, if a better experience comes along — they are bound to switch).

    Is this done in a week or a month or even a year? No, it requires extensive changes in the culture and the systems. However, this is the perfect time to undertake these changes, during a deep recession as we have right now, and with new tools that can enable us to exceed expectations.

    While I understand and almost agree with what you are saying, I am aiming to redo things better going forward. Delivering the same we have now, but expecting different results is — well, not likely to happen.

    Thanks for the read (apologies for the long delay, replying, long week behind).

  7. Mitch,

    I mostly agree with you — but, as I said above, I am proposing a change to the status quo of doing customer service. I have always looked forward and worked with clients in doing things differently in the future (I wrote about collaborative customer service and social service back in 2002-2003).

    It is scary to do so, yes — but there are rewards to being the first to do so, especially in competitive situations.

    As for your comment on the economic feasibility of exceeding expectations for the company, if you revamp your processes, policies, training, etc. to exceed expectations two things will happen: 1) you will need to access service recovery processes less often, and 2) when you do, it will be cheaper than now since you will have processes in place and you will have to do it less. So, the higher cost of recovery of today can be applied towards reducing the cost of adoption of an exceeds model.

    Hope it makes sense, I am just putting a forward looking model for service that will help today’s organizations work to retaining their customers and growing emotional loyalty…

    Thanks for the comment (sorry it took this long to get it here, long week behind us)

  8. Bob,

    I agree if that Marketing takes over the exceeding part is not there.

    However, look at the Ritz Carlton — do they advertise they will go beyond your expectations? that you should expect to have every whim catered to? No, and as a result is not part of the expectations — rather the surprise is still there, but RC does work towards exceeding expectations (the article i linked to actually talks about a guest that told her husband she would’ve like a cup of tea, and it appeared within minutes without her asking).

    Keep in mind that if you exceed untold expectations, customers don’t equate that to expectations for the next visit — they equate that to a surprise (as Graham mentioned above) since they were never expressed. There is a lot sociology and psychology that we are ignoring in experience and expectations management which can help us greatly in over-delivering.

    The key to the balance you mention is a change in company organization and culture, something we will have to do in the next years as we embrace the new social customer.

    Thanks for the comment, apologies for a long week that kept me from commenting…

  9. Steve,

    Thanks so much for the comment. I am going to have to say that from my perspective you are substantiating some of what I am saying (of course, I may be wrong as well).

    I agree very heartily with your comment on exceeding expectations not raising the bar, especially when expectations met are not expressed (which is, in my opinion, the best way to exceed expectations).

    We constantly hear about companies that exceeded expectations not by delivering more expensive or higher quality products or services, rather by having the right people, empowered to act and deliver on those un-expressed expectations.

    I am not advocating guessing what the customer wants, but to focus a little bit more on the intent behind the expectations. If I, as a customer, express dissatisfaction — the astute company would actually learn by asking what is it that would make me satisfied, then deliver slightly above that (you need to have a charge reversed, no worries — and here is a $5 credit for your trouble). Customers won’t expect the $5 each time, since they understand that it is a one-time deal, and they also know (if they have interacted with the company sufficiently) that the problem in the process that led to the error will be fixed.

    Anyway, I can rant and ramble for long on this, but I am glad that I found someone else that sees things (at least partially) as I do.

    Thanks for the read, apologies for taking so long to reply — been traveling and working long days this week.

  10. Ursha,

    Thanks for the comment, but I have to disagree with you. Your statement, “customers get used to consistent over-delivery and start taking it for granted” is only correct in a system that aims for just meeting expectations.

    If you revamp your organization, I have proposed some steps above in replies and there is lots more as well, then there are no “expectations” or “over-delivery”. If over-delivery becomes your norm, then there is no over-delivery that is expensive or cumbersome since it has become SOP for your organization.

    Further, Professor Vargos mentioned above some of his research that counters that claim, as well as my experiences and observations with clients in the past that have done this.

    I just don’t think that making an argument to remain mediocre so the customers won’t take over-delivery “for granted” is a good argument. I still believe that companies that want to do right by their customers will take on the idea, as they have in the past.

    If we were to continue the status-quo, we would not have additional channels (such as email and chat), or experiences, or even social customers. As we have to revamp organizations at this time anyways, why not just shoot for higher and better?

    Thanks for the comment.

  11. When we evaluate our employees, I hope we have a category called “exceeds expectations/requirements of the job ” and one called “far exceeds expectations of the job”. If we are satisfied with employees who just meet expectations, we have nothing but a mediocre work force. Top performers always exceed or far exceed the requirements of the job.

    In like fashion, meeting expectations with customers means that our business in the eyes of the customer is nothing but mediocre. To be a top performing business we need to exceed or far exceed the customers expectations.

    I rest my case.

  12. Jim,

    I totally agree with that concept, and that is one of the reasons i wrote this post. As we begin to see organizations tackle on the task of redoing their customer service and customer experience initiatives for the new social customer, I wanted to intersect this notion so that we can make it better.

    Thanks for the read!

  13. I so rarely see comment discussions this interesting, too!

    Redesigning the customer experience for the new social customer should be an especially wild ride for tall organizations.

  14. I am personally of the opinion that over delivering on expectations to a calculated degree is a good thing. It doesn’t have to happen consistently all the time and I don’t think it necessarily creates precedence. It doesn’t have to be an always or never proposition. The situation at hand will dictate when and when not to. On the other hand, over committing and under delivering has never helped me personally and but not necessarily on those “obligatory” occasions that a woman might come to expect.

    My wife and I once stayed at a hotel where they asked what the occasion was and I told them it was a wedding anniversary. Upon entering our room we found a lovely card from the management along with a bottle of wine and two wine glasses. Was I delighted? I sure was. Would I expect that or more if I booked there again? No. All other aspects of that stay being expected or greater, I would stay there again and I would also recommend that hotel to anyone I knew that was looking for something special and delightful. Yet I also wouldn’t set them up for disappointment by implying they would receive the exact same delights as I received. There were other surprises that occurred during our stay and so I figure this is the kind of place that attempts to surprise and delight their customers in various and creative ways. In that way they demonstrated that they cared about me and that I was important to them.

    There are lots of ways organizations can demonstrate caring for customers. By contrast I have done business with many organizations where the lack of attention and caring becomes noticeable and that’s when I begin losing faith and looking elsewhere. It sounds like a simple concept and it is but I find far too few organizations following this kind of strategy. Raising the bar on excellence is really what it should be all about. Would I choose to stop learning for example if I thought that everyone expected me to be smarter or more skillful this year than I was last? I have no interest in mediocrity in any form or for any reason. Status quo be damned…!!

  15. Glenn,

    I agree with you on the wild ride, but I always bring out the “best” on comments from people 🙂

    It is a charming quality after a while — although most of the time happens in my blog.


  16. Karl,

    Great example of what over-delivering means — and a good way to show people who say that if you over-deliver people will always expect it. Sure, segmentation and personalization do take a bigger role in my model — but they always exist anyway?

    I also agree that it raises the bar on excellence — but I would not say it is about excellence, it should be about average. if over-delivering becomes average, then we remove the need to over-deliver or to exercise service recovery, etc.

    I want to see companies constantly doing what you describe as a SOP, not as a special occasion task.

    Asking too much? Maybe — then again, hoping that maybe not.

    Thanks for the great example and the read.

  17. This is a great discussion. I side with Esteban that it is more economical to continually optimize the systems, processes and practices with the goal of exceeding customer’s expectation, than not. Such a strategy, despite it’s apparent up front cost, leads not only to creation of “beloved” brand equity, but eliminates Toyota like corporate reputation meltdowns we are witnessing unfold. The intent to learn and correct is in the core of such strategy IMHO, as oppose to strategy of cost optimization at any expense.

  18. Thanks Greg,

    It is nice to have someone side with me for a change 🙂

    I totally agree with you on the intent to learn and correct, but it seems that takes organizations some time to figure out that customer service is not about cost control — then they can move into making it better for their customers (and for themselves).

    Appreciate the read.

  19. Hi guys

    I have enjoyed reading this thread about exceeding customer expectations.
    I am interested in the exceeding customer expectations topic where the customer is a telecom company and the vendor is company that develop, deliver and deeply the (CRM) software (that will be used to serve the end customers). How things are changed here in your opinion?
    Exceeding Customer Expectations means very low number of software defects, very high availability of the deployed software etc.

    Nowadays, software vendors are committed to deliver software meeting very aggressive contractual commitments that are so hard to meet so isn’t it dangerous to initiate any “exceeding customer expectations” program with customers?

    Are you familiar with any relevant article or post on this?


  20. Esteban,
    Fantastic post. I wholeheartedly agree about the importance of exceeding expectations. In fact I believe the mere concept of meeting expectations is a myth. There is no such thing as meeting expectations. ( http://www.marketinglagniappe.com/blog/2010/02/24/the-customer-experience-road-less-traveled/ )
    You either exceed expectations or you fall short . . . there is no middle ground. The only choice you can make as a business is to put your customers first and invest in the customer experience. Too many businesses look past their best marketing resource (current customers). I believe marketing should start with the customer and not the prospect. Invest in giving little unexpected extras.
    ‘The longest and hardest 9 inches in marketing is the distance between the brain and the heart’

  21. I took my time to read through each post and must confess it looked more like a live show.

    Well, my own take on this topic is coming from the project management perspective:

    For the project scope (i.e. the work to be done; the tangible core; what makes your product/service functionally effective) – PLEASE STAY ON POINT. This is the motivating factor for your customer.

    Lets check two tendencies here:
    1. Goldplating :the incorporation of costly and unnecessary features or refinements into a product or structure; any expensive nonessential item, convenience, or feature e.g an apartment with a sauna.
    2. Scope Creep: It is also called focus creep, requirement creep, feature creep, function creep. This, in project management, refers to uncontrolled changes in a project’s scope e.g. a wristwatch running faster or slower.

    These are situations that almost always occur in project scope management when not-enough attention is given to the customer/client. Businesses should have it in mind that those folks had a NEED to be met, else they wouldn’t have showed up in your office in the first place.

    Aside the tangible core, there are other aspects that can make your business unique – your brand. With your brand you can meet the WANTS of your customer.
    A brand is a set of added values, values which offer both functinal and psychological benefits to the consumer e.g. performance in use; price; packaging; colour, taste and smell; shape and form;associations and the brand’s advertising.
    your brand is the differanciating factor for your customer. It is what makes the customer know that your business exists, and with it, you should ALWAYS EXCEED CUSTOMERS’ EXPECTATIONS to stay on top of your game.

    Even, brands are still limited in being able to win customers’ absolute loyality. Here, i suggest a way to add mystery, sensuality and intimacy to what you have to offer – becoming a LOVEMARK! When a customer falls in love with you. He will be willing to even pay more to get your product or service.

    You can bet on this!


  22. What really came out of this whole discussion for me is that exceeding expectations does not have to be costly. It just means working smarter, leveraging technology more effectively, empowering properly, and really, really putting empathy into action. That may have costs, but it could be “free.”

    Expectations are a lot like perceptions–they are different for everyone and they change based on the situation. So
    one thing to factor into this is what the brand promise.

    If the brand promise is one of high quality service, the over delivery on expectations is the right thing to strive for on a consistent basis. In fact, its probably mandatory. And you have to realize that your commitment to service may have raised expectations (I expect more from JetBlue than I do from United).

    If its not, then expectations might be lower. Then exceeding them is truly a surprise and something that will be remembered (and the length you go to exceed may be less than a brand that is “expected” to be a service leader.

    Out of all this, maybe the right goal is to set the culture of “we strive exceed expectations” from a service perspective. With that, you might at least get more consistent at meeting expecations all the time, and exceeding them most of the time.


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