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Words Matter: How to Manage Customer Expectations with Better Communication

Whether you’re a management professional or a frontline representative, it’s essential to manage customer expectations to the best of your ability. Though we’ve reviewed ways to manage customer expectations in the past, this time around we want to specifically explore how language shapes your customers’ expectations.

Just a few words, whether in person or via live chat, can make a world of difference when it comes to customer expectations. Saying the right things can shape their perception of products, services, and their relationship with you. Not to mention, getting this right can save you some serious customer service headaches down the line, and turn casual buyers into long-term customers.

In this post, we’ll share how you can use your words to manage customer expectations.

Always Be Specific

How many times have you told a customer: “I’ll get right back to you.“?

It’s a standard line that commonly used when you need to step away from the conversation at hand. However it can be misleading in how vague it is. Customer service expert Jeff Toister, in his course, How to Manage Customer Expectations for Frontline Employees, points out that this common phrase can land you in some hot water with customers:

Customers might think you’ll get back to them in a few minutes, even if you really meant a few hours.

For this reason it’s better to say something very specific, like:

I’ll get back to you by 5 pm today.

Or instead of saying:

Your order will arrive shortly.
I’ll check with my supervisor right away.


Your order will take up to 5 business days to arrive.”
I’ll forward your concern to my supervisor. Please allow up to two business days for a response.

Be specific with your customers every time, and you’ll prevent them from forming unrealistic expectations.

Give Yourself Wiggle Room

While it’s crucial that you’re specific with your language, you also want to make sure you don’t set up a trap for yourself. This means when you give an exact answer to a customer, be sure to give yourself room to deliver these expectations.

You might think setting the bar high is no problem. After all, you always go above and beyond to meet customer expectations. But sometimes in an effort to please customers, we speak a little too quickly, or promise to deliver things faster than we can under normal circumstances.

For example, let’s say you need to check the notes on an invoice before giving a customer a solid answer on their expected delivery date. Even if you typically can get this information within 2 minutes, it’s important to recognize that the unexpected does crop up. Technological errors, workplace interruptions, and other unanticipated hiccups come up all the time, no matter how long you told a customer it would take for you to get back to her.

So how can you create reasonable expectations that don’t back you in a corner?

Practice using direct language that still gives you some wiggle room. When you’re facing a 2 minute delay, tell a customer it will take you up to 5 minutes. If you normally are able to ship within 3 days, but it sometimes takes 5, say it takes up to 5 days. This is honest, precise, and gives you some room to breathe in case the unexpected happens.

Learn How to Say “No”

I think this should be OK, but let me check with my manager first…

Ever said these words before?

Well if you have, it’s time to retire this kind of phrasing for good. This is a dangerous statement because it’s guaranteed to aid a customer in developing expectations you can’t meet. The customer is now expecting a “yes,” because as we mentioned above: customers are always primed to build expectations around the best-case scenario. It’s better to be specific and say “no” instead of lead people on with a positive “maybe.”

We’ve discussed the importance of saying “no” before on the Comm100 blog, and we can probably never say it enough. But in this case, it’s particularly important for managing customer expectations. This is because you may think that the ever-perpetuated “customer-is-always-right” ethos means you need to give them whatever they want. And if your company gives customers whatever they want, then you can skip this section. If you can follow through with every customer’s demand, say yes with reckless abandon.

Still reading? OK, then you need to say “no” clearly and fairly to prevent customer expectations from spiraling out of control. Though we say it more in detail in our other post, here are your basic steps to saying “no” in a positive way, as learned from William Ury in The Power of a Positive No:

Step 1: Express your yes. What are you saying yes to when you deny this request? Fair business for all customers? Profit?


In order to ensure the safe delivery of our product….

Step 2: Assert your no. Communicate your no in clear, and no uncertain terms.


In order to ensure the safe delivery of the product, we cannot guarantee next-day delivery…

Step 3: Propose a yes. What your customer wants is for you to say yes to their happiness—this is something you CAN say yes to. So propose the next best thing, an alternative that can work for you both.


In order to ensure the safe delivery of the product, we cannot guarantee next-day delivery. However I can review our expedient shipping options with you, if you would like.

Recommended for you: How to Say No to Customers in a Positive Way

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Communicate All Terms and Conditions Upfront

Every company has terms and conditions—the mistake is to expect the fine print to communicate that for you. Even if it seems fair, it’s actually becoming a thing of the past. In a fast-paced society where no one has time to wait in line a few minutes for a cup of coffee, the idea of reading through terms and conditions just doesn’t occur to most people.

For this reason, if you rely on the fine print to communicate that for you, when a customer bumps up against an unexpected boundary, they might accuse you of bad or misleading business practices.

So think carefully about your terms and conditions, and what customers need to know in order to form expectations that are consistent with your business practices. If there is a limit (for example, on a promotion, items per customer, etc.) it needs to be communicated upfront. This will frame their expectations and also serve to build trust.

This includes things like:

  • Return policies
  • Promotion conditions
  • Shipping conditions
  • Purchase limits
  • Warranty offers and stipulations

How you phrase things can have a huge effect on customer expectations. How can you better communicate with customers to keep expectations realistic?

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Carla Jerez

About Carla Jerez

Carla Jerez is a senior content writer at Comm100. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Florida State University and has years' experience writing for the SaaS industry. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, traveling, or playing around on Photoshop. Connect with her on LinkedIn.