How To Manage Expectations


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Have you been on a flight recently and found that you arrived at your destination a little early? I have, but I never thought much about it until I heard this NPR report.

A Tufts University researcher named Silke Forbes thought it odd that she arrived 30 minutes early on a flight from Cleveland to Washington. She had taken the same flight a few years before, but it had taken less time back then. How could she be early for a flight that was taking longer? What was really going on here?

Forbes and her colleagues studied Department of Transportation records for 160 million commercial airline flights between 1990 and 2016. They looked at the flying times for comparable flights between the same cities on the same airlines and at the same time of year.

It turns out that airlines today are arriving ahead of schedule much more frequently than they did in the 1990s. But flights are also taking longer because of airport congestion or other issues.

The Tufts researchers think the airlines are cushioning their schedules with extra time to prevent customers from becoming frustrated with flight delays. Instead of saying a flight will take two hours, they say it will take two and a half. Then, when it really takes two hours and 15 minutes, the airline can report that you’ve arrived early.

Airlines are Managing Customer Expectations

In operating our company, Beyond Philosophy, I always go by the old business axiom: “Under-promise and over-deliver.” This means promising something you know you can achieve, and then going above and beyond in your performance. When you do this, customers are thrilled because you set their expectations low and then then got something more, better or earlier than anticipated. Unfortunately, I see many people and businesses doing the opposite – over-promising and under-delivering – and this has the opposite effect.

For example, if the airline tells me I’ll arrive at 2 p.m., that’s what I expect, and I plan my day accordingly. If I don’t land until 2:30, I’ll feel stressed about getting to my 3:30 p.m. meeting, and irritated with the airline in general. But suppose the airline told me my flight would arrive at 2:45? My expectation is different, and I won’t plan any meetings until 4. When I arrive at 2:30, I’m happy and the airline is wonderful. Now I have time to grab a late lunch!

In either situation, I arrive at 2:30. But my impression of the experience – and the airline – is vastly different because of my expectations. The feelings we develop about an experience are critical because they form a reference point that we will use as part of our decision making process in the future. Reference points help determine which airline we will use or whether we will fly at all. We talked about this in depth in a recent episode of our Intuitive Customer Podcast.

Expectations are Important in Business Too

This works in business too. Let’s say you’re preparing a proposal for a client and you expect to have it done on Monday. But you don’t tell the client this – you give yourself a little leeway and tell the client you’ll have it on Wednesday. When you do, in fact, send the proposal over on Monday, your client is delighted with your speed and efficiency.

Now let’s look at the scenario where the client asks if you can deliver the report on Wednesday, and you say yes even though you aren’t sure that’s realistic. If you don’t send the report until Friday, the client is annoyed, thinks you are unreliable, and as a result doesn’t want to work with you anymore.

Managing customer expectations is critical for success in business. The same goes for setting expectations appropriately with employees. We have discussed this in relation to how Virgin and Southwest practice Airline Employees Ambassadorship. People feel more comfortable and willing to work harder if expectations are realistic and achievable. However, many people and companies don’t do it well, and this means you can give yourself a competitive edge by paying attention to the effect of the expectations you set.

Do expectations change the way you feel about an experience? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


  1. I believe managing customer expectations is vitally important in B2B and B2C transactions. For technology companies over the last 25 years the trend to Software as a Service has made customer satisfaction a necessity. Prior to SaaS if customers paid large sums up front to purchase and implement software, they were “off the grid” for other vendors for years. With leading the way many transactions today require minimal up front costs as implementations have become activations. Paying is a monthly fee for technology use makes it much easier to change vendors without having to write off purchases and fund new ones. Churn is a huge concern for vendors.

    Part of managing expectations in my mind should be monitoring results. I encourage vendors to help customers select metrics to measure on an ongoing basis. Establishing baselines (where customers are pre-installation) and monitoring improvement on a quarterly basis allows issues to be identified and addressed but improvement of metrics provided the basis for customer success stories that can be shared with prospects to generate interest and also be helpful in quantifying what types of improvement can be realized. If and when potential renewals come up sellers can summarize benefits realized and likely improve renewal rates.

  2. You make some great points, Colin, and in most circumstances, (e.g. proposal delivery,) you are completely right. I’m also rather old fashioned and completely believe in the principle of under-promising and over-delivering.

    But I also noticed that you used airlines as your illustrative example. I know you travel frequently on business, as do I, but years ago when South African Airways, B.A. and others started doing the same, I learnt to “play the system.” As a typical irrational, emotional and illogical human being, I started second-guessing them, and would get very irritated when my expectations and assumptions about arrival times, based on previous history, were not met. I knew a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town was just under two hours, and a non-stop flight to London was 10.5 hours – head winds and tail winds were the only excuse I wanted to hear in terms of variations.

    The point I want to make is that the answer to the question you pose is, “It depends.” One of our clients in the life insurance industry worked very hard, and paid an enormous amount of money, to reduce the time taken to process a claim to 24 hours. After all, who wouldn’t want everything settled immediately? It turned out that the brokers didn’t like that. They needed the extra time to take care of paperwork and processes on their side, and it was of no consequence to them that the life insurer dealt with it all urgently. (In fact, some even expressed frustration as their clients then started putting them under pressure.)

    It reminds me of when, as a newly-wed young husband, I finally realised that my wife was always 30 minutes late. So I started bringing forward the time we had to leave home by 30 minutes. It took her about 3 months to figure out my manipulation, and so she assumed if I said 6:00 pm, it meant 6:30 pm, and she’d be ready at 7:00 pm! I was worse off than before.

    Great thought starter.

  3. The concept of underpromising and over delivering is terrific. And, this is an important discussion. Your airline example of the concept, however, leaves me a bit troubled. The telling line is: “cushioning their schedules” or “they say it will take two and a half. Then, when it really takes two hours and 15 minutes…” Under the covers of the airlines implied promise is deception–the currency of a politician, huckster, and snake oil salesman. It is the car sales person who tells you he or she is selling you a new car at their cost. You feel like you got a great deal; they exceeded your expectations. That is, until you learn the car manufacturer has altered the price game by paying the dealership and salesperson a rebate after the sale. Retailers mark up popular items 20% a couple or three months before Christmas only to advertise those same items on Black Friday at a discount of 20%. Are you getting a great deal? You might think so. The truth is you are only getting the perception of a good deal. How about making an honest promise followed by great, over-the-top effort directed at over delivering? With that approach, our loyalty as customers rewards value-added initiative rather than a concocted, fake promise.

  4. I’ve used this principle “Under-promise and over-deliver” many times with my customers. It really works and your remarks how it has been adapted into airline business was really nice. I believe that even though my customers quite often got things I had promised earlier (etc.) they still felt like they got a good deal. But I work mainly with B to B. In customer business one might need to be more careful as was pointed out before.

  5. If a strategy or tactic works for you, consider maintaining it. I might not do it the same way, but as long as it’s ethical, I can’t say it’s wrong. That’s how I feel about under-promise, over-deliver. For me, “Under promise” equates to tepid marketing messages, which produce more engagement losses than I’m willing to accept.

    Daniel Kahneman expressed a similar conclusion in a different way during an interview with Stephen Dubner on the Podcast, Freakanomics. He stated the case so well that I saved it for future use:

    “There is a real social problem that if you realistically present to people what can be achieved in solving a problem, they will find that completely uninteresting. You have to over-promise in order to get anything done. That is part of it. You take a problem like poverty. President Johnson was about to solve the problem and if — at the realistic objective, which is to reduce this by 12% and to increase that by 5% then, and so on. People would’ve said, “That’s trivial. We want to solve the problem.” Over-promising is part of the game, you know? You can’t get anywhere without some degree of over-promising.

    Taking his point further, were it not for over-promising, leaders would never gain followers, and innovations could never be mass-marketed. Capitalism would wither on the vine.


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