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6 Tips for Managing Customer Expectations

Customer satisfaction is dependent upon knowing your customers’ needs and expectations. But your ability to meet, and even exceed customer expectations is often dependent upon what customers think their experience should look like.

While there are many factors that can influence expectations, from a competitor’s offer to news coverage of a fantastic customer success story, some of these factors are within your control. With careful consideration and a few adjustments, you could be a master of customer expectation management.

In this post, we’ll explore what different experts have to say on managing customer expectations so that you can create loyal customers for life—the kind that can’t stop recommending you to all their family and friends.

Understanding Your Customer’s Expectations

A customer’s expectation is what he/she anticipates will and won’t, as well as what should and shouldn’t, happen when interacting with your company. Customer expectations come into play in a number of different circumstances, and can influence a customer’s experience with a representative, your online platform, or even a self-service channel.

There are many variables that come together to develop customer expectations, but there are a few main ones that we can study to have a better grasp on the topic. Customer service expert, Jeff Toister, outlines four major sources for customer expectations on his blog. They include:

  • Your communication to the customer
    What you have said to a customer, on your site or directly, will influence what they come to expect of your service. (Read our blog post: Words Matter: How to Manage Customer Expectations with Better Communication.) For this reason, indirect or unintentionally misleading information can have disastrous results. For example, telling a customer they have a no-strings attached free trial, without telling them the parameters or limits of the trial, can lose you their trust once they encounter an off-limits feature.
  • The Customer’s past experience with you
    Whatever you have said or done in the past with a customer will stick with them and form expectations. Did you forgive a late payment in the past? If they aren’t allowed to be late in the future, they may feel cheated.
  • Word-of-mouth from others and reviews
    What others say, online or in person, can color how customers interact with you. For this reason, it’s important to keep service consistent.
  • Experience with other companies
    No matter what precedent you set (or clear policies you have in place), what other companies have done, whether your competitors or companies in entirely different industries, will guide customer expectations regarding what you should be delivering.

Toister’s four sources of customer expectations are a great guideline when you’re reviewing your current support plan. Other variables that may influence customer expectations include:

  • Individual customer needs
    What your individual customers want or need can really affect their expectations of your company. For example, if a customer is speaking with a representative but needs a fast resolution, then he/she may expect a faster response time than is typical for your company or industry.
  • Country/region
    If you’re selling online, you probably service a number of different regions across the globe. Regardless of where your company is located, your customers will likely bring a unique perspective or understanding of what customer service should be, depending on their country of origin. In some countries, for example, the customer is always right. In others, customer service representatives shouldn’t be too obtrusive or overly friendly.

Express Information Honestly and Clearly

Miscommunication with customers is a huge problem: according to a survey conducted by Tolero Solutions, 53% of customers said that unclear communication was the biggest issue that kept them from a good service experience.

The reality is you may be miscommunicating with customers in ways you’re not even aware of. Indirect modes of communication are just as important to monitor as direct modes of communication. Be aware of what the following channels are communicating to your customers:

  • Website—Are all pages and information up-to-date?
  • Social Media Platforms—Are all social media promotions and offers honored? Are expiration dates on offers clearly defined?
  • Print Materials—Do you frequently update printed materials with new information (hours of operations, prices, features, etc.)?
  • FAQs—Do you update your FAQ with new questions that customers are asking? Is the information detailed and accurate?

Direct modes of communications need to be clear and honest as well. Agents can sometimes commit the greatest miscommunication voice: they say whatever necessary to appease a customer’s wildest fantasy. You’ve likely seen (or even committed) this common customer service faux pas—telling a customer something might be delivered earlier than what is standard for your company, or implying that a feature may be developed sometime in the near future.

Even though it’s good to be eager to please, this desire needs to be balanced with the truth concerning your products, services, and offerings.

To avoid these kinds of messy situations, it’s best to train agents to say exactly what they mean instead of bending the truth to sound more appealing.

Be Consistent with Your Service

Customer service expert, Shep Hyken, has a very direct answer when it comes to the question, “What’s the key to creating loyal customers?”

Consistency and predictability. Let’s assume that the product you sell does what it’s supposed to do and the people that deliver it and the level of service they give, is a good service, as soon as it’s become predictable and it’s consistent and it’s just a little above average…then you have a chance at creating loyalty.

Since returning customers will have expectations based off of their previous experiences with your company, it’s important to keep service consistent. But it’s also important to keep service consistent with all customers, not just returning patrons; after all, customers will compare their experiences on social media and via word-of-mouth.

To illustrate this point, let’s pretend you have created a new and improved return policy that extends your 14-day policy to a 30-day full refund guarantee. If after a quarter you decide that this policy is adversely affecting your company and you would like to redact it, you will risk creating an inconsistent experience, and could potentially lose otherwise loyal customers to the dreaded churn.

Study Support Heroes and Competitors

Customers will not only compare you to yourself, but also to your competitors and to other companies. What perks or benefits do your competitors offer that you currently don’t? Can you tell if your customers have expectations influenced by these competing offers?

To see the outside influence on your customers, check chat and phone transcripts, emails, and feedback surveys. It’s important to be very aware of your competitors’ offers and policies. Customers might not refer to them by name, but if a customer expresses, for example, that they would like a 60-day money back guarantee (one that your competitor offers), you can infer that their expectations have been influenced in this way.

Similarly, subscribe to customer service blogs to keep up-to-date on what customer support heroes like Zappos and Disney are up to. The only way to really manage customer expectations in this scenario is to be aware of what the best of the best are doing, and take a page from their book.

Train Front-Liners Well

It’s crucial that your agents and representatives are on the same page when it comes to setting and managing customer expectations—in doing this, you empower them with the tenants of clear communication, consistency, and superior service.

When onboarding new agents, be sure to include a portion of training that’s devoted to managing customer expectations. In his course, How to Manage Customer Expectations for Frontline Employees, Jeff Toister points out that it is important to identify the areas in which you can manage customer expectations. Ask yourself these two questions when preparing to onboard new agents:

  1. What expectations can agents reasonably manage with clear communication and consistency? This will vary from company to company, but informing customers about your processes, policies, and fees as early as possible can help prevent the development of unrealistic expectations.
  2. What variables are out of our control, and how can our agents communicate them to the customer?

Toister uses the example of a florist informing a customer about when certain flowers are out of season, so that the customer won’t be disappointed by a limited selection. Identify all of the variables that can affect customer service that are outside of your control (this could be a supplier, distributer, or resource/product availability).

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Consider all the possible situations that may come up with your customers, and test new agents on their responses. It can be helpful to develop some scripts in response to each scenario, and give them to new hires to study.

While the quality of your onboarding is something that needs to be carefully crafted and managed, you can also implement ongoing training to increase your agents’ ability to manage and meet customer expectations. When creating new training objectives for current agents, study transcripts and recordings to pinpoint areas of strong as well as poor communication—particularly in regards to customer expectations. Look out for words and phrases that communication the following:

  • Apologetic mentality
    Apologizing for actual mistakes is important. But statements like “this will take just one moment,” or “it’s just our policy, I’m sorry,” can set up dangerous and false expectations.
  • Indecisiveness
    Words such as “maybe” or “might” indicate that the agents may not know what the exact policies or procedures are—which can be a huge problem for customers, as it can let their expectations run wild.
  • Unnecessary justifications
    Look out for agents that unnecessarily justify a policy or process—it can create an expectation of incompetence. For example, “we only process payments this way because of past issues,” or “I would like to fulfill your request, but my supervisor would be upset with me if I did.”

Deliver Extraordinary Service

Thanks to all of the complex factors that come together to create high customer expectations, you may feel the pressure to over deliver. After all, if you fail, you may become a poster company for what’s wrong with customer service today. It’s a common fear—go above and beyond, or suffer at the hands of bad online reviews and Twitter rage.

Hyken’s response to this common concern is very illuminating:

When customers don’t get the customer service they think they deserve – the service that they know a company is capable of providing – they no longer just complain to a few friends, or simply stop doing business with you. They want to tell the world about it.
I think this is good. Hold us to a higher standard…The bottom line is that it will be good for business.

Hyken is pointing out that yes, customer expectations are increasing across the board due to increased media coverage, social media, and online reviews—but maybe this is a good thing. After all, this gives you the unprecedented opportunity to create the expectation that you deliver consistent, extraordinary service—and then blow customers out of the water by meeting their high standards.

For example, there’s the inspiring story of Joshie the Giraffe. A patron’s son left his stuffed giraffe at the Ritz-Carlton. The Ritz-Carlton staff not only sent the giraffe to the writer’s home, but included photo album of Joshie’s luxurious extended stay at the resort. This story goes to prove that a little creativity and thoughtfulness can go a long way, and even motivate a customer to share their experience with the world.

You may think, Fine. A hotel chain like the Ritz-Carlton can easily go above and beyond, and get great media coverage to boot. But a small company like mine? No way.

Yet little touches can really make the difference, and can inspire incredible word-of-mouth on a small scale. A few years ago, a friend of mine went to a local coffee shop. She was having a really stressful day, and just wanted to get out of the house. A barista sensed her bad mood, and surprised her with a free milkshake.

Because of that story, this local coffee shop has my business at least once a week. My friend’s story created an expectation of personalized and friendly service. Some might argue that it’s a bad thing, and that one generous barista has set the bar too high for all local coffee shops. But at the end of the day, a small offering gained them not one, but two loyal customers.

If you can successfully manage customer expectations, you can better meet or even exceed them, as a result influencing repurchasing decisions and long-term customer loyalty.

What steps do you take to manage customer expectations? Does it help you impress them, or do you feel like you’re just trying to keep up with the competition?

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A top performing live chat agent is skillful at knowing customer expectations. This eBook contains 12 essential tips for live chat agents to communicating effectively, addressing customer issues efficiently, and representing your brand professionally.

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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.