The Customer Experience Road Less Traveled


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The Biggest Myth in Customer Experience is the Idea of Meeting Expectations

There are two paths that diverge in the corporate woods. Many companies take the wide first path and are happy with just meeting expectations. Others consciously take the narrower and tougher road deciding to go ‘above and beyond’ to exceed customer expectations. The second path is the crux of the ‘marketing lagniappe‘ theory.

two paths in the woods

Seth Godin wrote a tremendous post today entitled ‘Once in a Lifetime’. He touches on these two paths:

This is perhaps the greatest marketing strategy struggle of our time:

Should your product or service be very good, meet spec and be beyond reproach or…

should it be a remarkable, memorable, over the top, a tell-your-friends event?

The answer isn’t obvious, and many organizations are really conflicted about this.

Delta Airlines isn’t trying to make your day. They’re trying to get you from Atlanta to Salt Lake City, close to on time, less expensive the other guy and hopefully without hassle. That’s a win for them.

On the other hand, when I was growing up, we used to stop in a diner in Deposit, New York to break up the long drive from Buffalo to New York City. This diner had a really engaged staff and always one practical joke or another subtly present. (I still remember the little notice on the bulletin board once, “Henway for sale, $45. Ask cashier.”) It was enough reason to drive three miles out of our way, a few times a year. My guess is that a busy traveler wouldn’t be happy with the extra six minutes it took to eat there.

Most of the consumer businesses (restaurants, services, etc.) and virtually all of the business to business ventures I encounter shoot for the first (meeting spec). They define spec and they work to achieve it. A few, from event organizers to investment advisors, work every single day to create over-the-top remarkable experiences. It’s a lot of work, and it requires passion.

If you ran a spa at a ski resort, which would you shoot for?

Most of the people who come aren’t regulars, and most of them just want a massage, a good one, one that makes the trip a little special. I don’t think most people coming by expect anything more than that.

On the other hand, you could invest in staff and training and services that would be so connected to each other and the guests, so willing to engage and to change people that it might become the sort of transcendent experience that people talk about for months.

But you can’t do both at the same time. That customer who came for the on-spec service isn’t going to be happy with the over the top hoopla. And so you try to compromise and do both, to please everyone. Sorry, but you can’t.

Seth finishes off stating that you can’t be all things to all people. I agree to an extent. You definitely need to set out and create a strategy that defines which path you will take. Don’t get caught in the mushy middle. That said – I don’t think you need to create the same type of experience for each and every customer. Don’t treat everyone the same, treat everyone fairly.

In my thinking it boils down to the simple question about meeting expectations. If all you want to do is meet expectations, then you are setting yourself up for failure. Again – there is no such thing as meeting expectations. It’s a myth. It’s like being on time. No one is ever on time. You are either late or you are early. There is no middle ground.

If you are not willing to differentiate yourself by creating valuable experiences or little touches that go ‘above and beyond’ for your customer . . . you will languish in the sea of sameness. Choose your path wisely.

The PURPLE GOLDFISH PROJECT – Click here to see 234 examples of marketing lagniappe. Over 100 brands have been submitted to the list. Need some thought starters?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Stan Phelps
Stan Phelps is the Chief Measurement Officer at 9 INCH marketing. 9 INCH helps organizations develop custom solutions around both customer and employee experience. Stan believes the 'longest and hardest nine inches' in marketing is the distance between the brain and the heart of your customer. He is the author of Purple Goldfish, Green Goldfish and Golden Goldfish.


  1. While I agree with the main premise of your post that you cannot focus on both side – you either focus your operations around the goal of meeting of expectations or focus on delivering memorable experience – I express my disgreement about achieving expectations is unachievable.

    “Again – there is no such thing as meeting expectations. It’s a myth.”

    It is not quite true. In fact greatest minds in process development state that meeting expectations is the main criteria of quality product or service – not level of defets or matching to inside or outside standards.

    The trick here is understanding expectations and never forget managing them.

    In our organization, the goal is to keep consistemt customer experience – not memorable, but memorable for its consistency, and memorable in its consistency matching clients’ expectations – from the moment I meet a new client over the cup of coffee to the moment of the final handshake months after (which due to our approach in consistency of meeting their expectatons is rarely final).

    That consistency includes the absolute need for a personal response / involvement; keeping communication well beyond any traditional levels (no such thing as overcommunicating with the client); and delivering within tolerable range of the expectation.

    Understanding what is tolerable is the key in understanding expectations and structuring process to match them. Nobody ever on time and nobody is immune from errors. Making errors or being late does not mean breaking expectations – it means that expectations defined at the beginning of relationships should provide the way of satisfactory resolution – explicitely or implicitely. One of my recent clients was thrilled we delivered just 2 weeks behind the schedule (which in our industry and on 18 months project is quite remarkable), and with little defects to worry about. Another client has almost unlimited tolerance for mistakes as long as our delivery is ahead of schedule and we can resolve issues at moments notice (within hours).

    If we were “consistent” just in the delivery approach we would miss expectations in both of these examples – for one we would be too sloppy and too fast (they would be under pressure from us to get deliveries they cannot utilize), for another we would be too slow.

    What helps us following the course of expectations is:
    – spending time in understanding what is expected
    – and be flexible to adjust the process we follow according to the expectation of the particular client

    It takes a delibrate effort but the point I am really making that matching expectations is possible.

  2. Vadim,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I still maintain my stance that ‘meeting expectations’ is a myth. If you think that you exactly meet the expectations of each of your customers, then you are fooling yourself. Here are a few reasons why:

    1. Each one of your customers has a different level of expectations. It’s fine to say you tailor your services to each, but do you really know truly where their level of expectations lies?

    2. Even if you could ‘exactly’ meet expectations, it still isn’t enough for retention. Over 60% of customers who switch to a different brand say they are ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the brand they just left. In my mind, setting out to just meet expectations is like playing prevent defense in football. It only prevents you from one thing . . . winning.

    3. Expectation is a moving target. Given our current economic environment, today’s consumer expects more value each and every day. Given your recommendation you would constantly be playing catch up and trying to adjust.

    There are two roads. You’ve chosen to take the ‘meeting expectations’ path.



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