DOs & DON’Ts of Setting Customer Expectations

Although every organization is striving to deliver perfect customer service, not all of your customer interactions will be home runs. Physician Brian Goldman points out in a TEDx Talk that a good batting average is .300—and that means a baseball player has only hit the ball three out of 10 times. A player who hits the ball four out of 10 times is considered legendary.

In customer service, when we swing and miss, it’s important to know how to quickly rectify the situation. One of the most important steps we can take is to set appropriate customer expectations, and this can begin before we even meet our customer. Every interaction with a customer—on a website, over the phone or in person—is an opportunity to set realistic expectations and prevent future disappointments. The following DO’s and DON’Ts share specific ways organizations can better manage customer expectations.

DO Value Your Customer’s Trust

When your customers are upset, their frustrations extend beyond a specific incident. They’re also upset because you have violated their trust. They may be saying to you, “I’m upset because you promised me a free toaster and instead you gave me a flashlight.” However, what they are really thinking is, “You’ve let me down, and I’m worried I won’t be able to continue trusting you.” Everyone in your organization must contribute to earning customer loyalty by endeavoring to establish and restore a customer’s faith in your services.

One of the Service Values at The Ritz-Carlton states “I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life.” Lifelong relationships tend to include an occasional disappointment. However, when relationships are built on a foundation of trust, you have more understanding and goodwill as you work through any difficulties. You want to do everything possible to earn and maintain your customers’ confidence, and managing customer expectations will help preserve trust.

DON’T Oversell Your Products or Services

Everyone wants to be the best. If you’re a diner, you may want to claim you serve the best waffles in the country—or even on the planet! The problem with claiming to be the best is that you immediately set yourself up for comparisons and disappointments. Your customers may try your waffles, and they may really like them. However, liking them is no longer enough. Your waffles have to be the best waffles in the world! Your customers will be dissatisfied if your waffles aren’t far and above any other waffles they’ve ever eaten. Are you losing customers by setting the bar too high? When you inflate customers’ expectations, you’re making it more difficult for your organization to achieve success.

DO Pay Special Attention to Time Frames

Organizations often make promises related to time. “Someone will be with you in a moment,” “You’ll have the shipment by Thursday,” or the ever-so-vague “This won’t take long at all.” When time is part of the expectation, you’re in greater danger of losing trust if you get it wrong. If that shipment does not arrive on Thursday, your customer will be understandably upset. Depending on how you handle the situation, you may lose the customer’s trust altogether. If your organization is proactive in their communication, quick to look for solutions and rectify any difficulties and is apologetic, then you have the opportunity to restore faith. However, if your organization fails to communicate with the customer and maintains an indifferent, “win some, lose some” attitude, you will most likely lose future business.

The healthcare industry has one of the toughest challenges in regard to setting time frames. Doctors and nurses are in a difficult position because patients—and their families—want to know when they can expect to be well. It’s important to give patients hope; however, because doctors and nurses are also dealing with people when they are the most vulnerable, it’s important not to set expectations too high. If patients think they can expect to be up and waltzing next week, it will be hugely disappointing if they’re still confined to a sickbed. Healthcare professionals risk not only losing the trust of their patients, but also diminishing the spirits of their patients and their families.

DON’T Make Impossible Promises

Sometimes organizations make promises that seem possible when they’re being concocted in a boardroom with a group of passionate and committed executives. However, your staff—the people who will be fulfilling the promises—must buy-in and agree on the feasibility of the promises as well. At The Ritz-Carlton, one of our Service Values ensures that our employees—known as our Ladies and Gentlemen—are “involved in the planning of the work that affects [them.]”

Your organization can make promises to your customer—as long as the promises are truly executable.  Back in the 1960s, Avis rental car launched the tagline and brand promise, “We try Harder.” They maintained that promise for five decades, and according to AdAge, the “campaign reversed the company’s fortunes, helping it to go from losing $3.2 million to turning a profit of $1.2 million for the first time in 13 years.”

DO Practice Seamless Communication

Customers may contact your organization through email, text, social media, phone or in person, and it is your organization’s responsibility to record and transmit any communications appropriately. Your customer does not realize the complexities of your organization. Your customers want to believe that they can send one communication, and they will be heard. That is their expectation.

When there are communication breakdowns, customers often become frustrated. Think about the customer who calls your establishment to make a special request and is told everything is set, but finds out later that the request was never passed along. Or the customer who finds a coupon for your store on the Web, but when the customer arrives at the store, he or she finds out that none of your employees know how to process the coupon. Worst of all is when a customer is handed-off from one employee to another and each employee tells the customer a different story.

When customers are forced to sort through confusion and have to fight to be heard, they will lose confidence and faith in your organization. If your customers must be handed-off to another employee or if customers will need to reiterate their needs to another department, be sure to communicate the process to your customers. Good communications can deflate frustration and is a cornerstone of trust.

Don’t Forget to Value Your Customers

Your customers have more power than ever. They can shop anywhere. Even if you’re the only retail store on an island, you’re still competing with E-tail. If your customers are unhappy with your product or service, they don’t just tell their neighbor or friends. They tell the Internet and share their opinion around the world. Your customers expect to be valued. They expect to be cared for. When they don’t feel appreciated, they can easily carry through on the threat, “I will take my business elsewhere!” If your organization isn’t willing to make extra efforts and show customers that they’re valued, your customers will probably find a competitor who is willing to earn their business. Again, small gestures can make a small impact. Saying “thank you” and “we appreciate your business” are easy, cost-free and express your gratitude.

Focusing on Expectations

It’s important to meet the expressed and unexpressed needs of your customers, but at the same time, make sure you set realistic expectations. If you’re resolving an issue, be sure you direct your customers through any process and communicate regularly, thanking them for their patience along the way. Building relationships with your customers and managing their expectations takes extra time and effort, but it is rewarded by positive word-of-mouth and customer loyalty.

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center offers advisory services, courses and presentations to organizations that wish to benchmark the award-winning business practices of The Ritz-Carlton. Your organization can learn about The Ritz-Carlton methodology for customer service, employee engagement and leadership development. We also guide organizations through a multi-step process in order to achieve sustainable culture transformation.