Customers Really Don’t know What To Expect: Why Asking About Customer Expectations Is Often Not Helpful


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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.


  1. Jim

    The problem you describe is common to everyone who is in the innovation business; whether BIG I new product development, or small i continuous improvement.

    Needs, wants and expectations are complex psychological constructs that are not at all well understood, are hard to measure meaningfully and are hard to make sense of in everyday business. I have stopped looking at them in my marketing consultancy and interim work because of these methodological difficulties. They also have another serious problem. They are abstract constructs with little real meaning for customers, that force them to think artificially about what they, well, need, want and expect.

    As Vargo & Lusch pointed out in their seminal 2004 article on Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing, customers are much better able to describe the jobs they are trying to achieve, the outcomes they are looking for by doing them and thus, how value is delivered to customers whilst they are actually doing the jobs. Rather than nebulous needs, wants and expectations, I much prefer the ODI approach pioneered by Tony Ulwick and supported by Clayton Christensen.

    Adopting the customer jobs & outcomes approach also forces companies to focus on how their products, services & experiences are actually consumed by customers. As recently published research by Tuli, Kohli & Bharadway on Rethinking Customer Solutions: From Product Bundles to Relational Processes shows clearly, the outcomes customers are looking for include a whole range of relational support above and beyond the core products, services & experiences that traditional market research identifies.

    Ask the right questions of customers and you will receive the right answers.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager


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