Happy Customers and Their Expectations

Dreams, Clichés, and the Real World

What business owner wouldn’t want a happy customer? A satisfied client is the best marketing arm of any successful enterprise. Happy customers are often repeat customers, referral sources to new customers, and - perhaps best of all - walking, talking testaments to the quality of a business’ goods and services. Free, unprompted advertising also speaks to the trust that future customers can place in the business, even before they first walk in the door.

So, let’s make our customers happy, right? A number of famous people have shared their thoughts on how to do just that:

“There is only one boss. The customer.” – Sam Walton

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." – Maya Angelou

“Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.” – Walt Disney

“Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the customer gets out of it.” – Peter Drucker

“The key is to set realistic customer expectations, and then not to just meet them, but to exceed them—preferably in unexpected and helpful ways.” – Richard Branson

Essentially, we’re advised to:

1. Treat the customer like the boss. Be responsive to their wants and needs.

2. Ensure that customers feel special, appreciated, and valued.

3. Demonstrate consistent excellence in your products and services.

4. Provide the best experience when customers frequent your business.

5. Know your customers’ expectations and then exceed them.

All great advice and well-heeded by the most successful companies. Interestingly, many business consultants especially like to focus on this last piece of advice, that of exceeding customer expectations. We hear phrases that have become cliché in the business world, like:

“Meet and exceed your customers’ expectations”

and

“Under-promise and over-deliver”

Great advice, right? Yes, but … let’s qualify these statements. Consider this. It’s terrific to exceed your customers’ expectations, but what happens the next time they purchase? Well, the bar is set to a higher standard, to where you exceeded their expectations, and now they may expect the bar to be continuously raised. You want to please your customer, but there’s a limit to how much you may be able to do. Or they may let you know that the best way to exceed their expectations is to lower your price, while keeping the quality of your product to its same high standard. At some point you have to depart this model and you will either have an unhappy customer, who was accustomed to receiving ever more, or you will be out of business.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. An astute business person aspires to exceed customer expectations, but manages what those expectations should be. They don’t have to – and should not - come at a dear cost to the business itself. Rather, expectations are met and exceeded through the values that the business embraces and extends to all its customers, values such as excellent customer service, accountability, and business conducted in good faith. These values are universally treasured and enhance the reputation of both the business and its owner(s). As customers come to associate these values with the business itself, trust is established, which elevates the business in their minds to a level where it consistently exceeds their expectations. Trust is the cornerstone of human relationships, whether personal or commercial, and must be earned, but once it is, its value is truly priceless.

What about the pledge to under-promise and over-deliver? Well, be careful here! It sounds great – like Scotty from Star Trek, you could build a reputation as a miracle worker, right?

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Hmmm, Scotty may have pulled it off, but more likely than not, you could end up shooting yourself in the foot.

First, you run the risk of disappointing customers by not appearing to be able to deliver what your competitors are offering. In the voice over world, that’s as if I were to tell a potential client that I could complete a corporate narration within three days, when I know that I can really do so within two. I risk losing the job to another voice talent who more accurately estimates a more realistic timeframe for delivery.

The second risk comes when a repeat customer sees this happening time and again, and wonders perhaps if you’re not being honest or knowledgeable enough about your business to more accurately forecast. When repeat customers begin to question your subsequent quotes on delivery, trust erodes and diminishes the business relationship, again opening the door to your competitors.

Finally, imagine this philosophy embraced by employees within a larger company. If I were running a software company, for example, I’d soon discover that my sales reps were gaming the system with low-ball forecasts, so as to exceed their quotas and collect their quarterly or year-end bonuses. I’d be reinforcing the idea that the appearance of superior performance is better than setting and meeting reasonable, realistic goals. And no one wins, neither the business that’s short of its year-end goals nor its employees, who at best underestimate their abilities and at worst are labeled “underachievers” and may soon be out of their jobs.

In my experience, the best thing that a business – no matter its size - can offer a customer is the value that it brings to the relationship: honesty, integrity, hard work, and the dedication to deliver a high quality product or service on-time and within the customer’s budget. Happy customers receive what they expect, and perhaps a bit more, especially when it comes from an individual or business whom they know, trust, and respect.