Great Expectations: Communications Can’t Take the Expected for Granted


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As the bellman took my bags from my taxi, I spotted a hulk of a vehicle parked in the hotel’s front lot. With an SUV profile and more than a hint of gigantism to it, the beast looked like a mama Hummer about to give birth to a litter of Hummettes. When the bellman saw me pause to look at it, he said, “Freightliner Sports Chassis. One of the few in the world. I think Shaquille O’Neal drives one.”

“So that one belongs to the hotel?”

“No. It belongs to a group that’s holding a convention here.”

“You seem to know a lot about it.”

He said. “I knew guests would be asking about it, so I looked it up on the web.”

Contrast this conversation with another hotel experience, this one involving a too-cleverly-designed bath faucet handle, inset into a round fixture above the tub. I easily turned the handle in both directions, but the faucet remained dry.

I explained this problem to the front desk on the phone. “Did you turn it all the way to the right?” the associate asked. I thought I had, but went to double-check, and with a bit of further fiddling, found that pulling the handle out started the water flow. I reported my success with pulling rather than rotating to the associate, and she said, “Oh, guests have trouble with that all the time.” Hanging up, I wondered why, if pulling was a consistent problem, I had been asked about rotating.

These two incidents, by the way, happened within an hour of each other. At the same hotel. One associate had witnessed the unexpected in the form of a vehicle with two zip codes. He anticipated questions and worked to find the answers. The other associate had witnessed the expected likely several times and apparently had worked to forget the answers. Guess who got the big tip.

Now, consider a third incident: Some time later, I was passing through a hotel lobby—different hotel, this time—as an unregistered guest checked in. The desk clerk asked, “Would you like smoking or non-smoking, sir?”


“Sorry, we only have smoking rooms left.”

If it were me, I’d have replied by snarkily quoting Kevin Kline in the movie A Fish Called Wanda: “What was the middle choice again?”

In each of these cases, consumer expectations were primed, at three different levels: by something unusual, something problematic, and something offered and then retracted. Though loyalty marketers will rarely have to explain the complexities of bathtub-faucet design, they will face situations that parallel those I encountered on my travels. Program members will encounter surprises, problems and unfulfilled promises, and we as communications professionals must be prepared to deliver expected responses—ideally in advance. In such cases, the most efficient communications are those that both start and end the conversation, proactively addressing and meeting expectations spurred by consumer need, curiosity and other factors.

To ease your consumers’ figurative travels with your programs, consider the following practices—and you were expecting them, weren’t you?

Answer questions before they are asked. Web site FAQs attempt to do this, but passively. Answer FAQs in outreach, perhaps even with trigger-based informational communiqués planned as strategically as trigger-based offers. A glance at the Freightliner was trigger enough.

Mix need-to-knows with want-to-knows. When announcing new benefits or changes in terms to members, move beyond just the facts to the unasked questions. Why? What’s in it for me? What’s coming next—more bad news? Why do you install those confusing faucets in the first place?

Don’t falsely set expectations. At one program web site, I clicked a tab labeled “This Month’s Specials,” and promptly found a page lauding, “Stay tuned for upcoming monthly specials!” Why alert consumers to possibilities when no possibilities exist at that moment? Why make offers by rote of corporate script or dictation of program design when no such offers are immediately accessible?

Puzzled, I stared at the “Stay tuned” message for a few seconds. No non-smoking rooms on that page, that was certain. So I selected the middle choice. The logout button.

Bill Brohaugh
As managing editor, Bill Brohaugh is responsible for the day-to-day management and editorial for the COLLOQUY magazine and, the most comprehensive loyalty marketing web site in the world. In addition to writing many of the feature articles, Bill develops the editorial calendar, hires and manages outside writers and researchers and oversees print and online production. He also contributes to COLLOQUY's weekly email Market Alert and the COLLOQUYTalk series of white papers.


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