Unmet expectations can be the kiss of death for a business relationship. When what the customer expects and what the vendor delivers are strikingly different, and not in a good way, trust gets shattered and the customer is left not wanting to deal with that business again. Largely driven by the pervasiveness of e-commerce and digital communication, these days customers are better informed, and have higher expectations, than ever before. Any business that fails to take the management of expectations seriously risks losing customers and sliding into insolvency.
customer complaint

What makes things difficult, however, is that different customers have different expectations. While one person’s expectations are based on their previous experiences with your company, someone else’s may be chiefly influenced by what they understand the customer service norms to be in your industry. Or by what they’ve read about your company. Or by something else entirely. Without the ability to read minds it can be hard to know what any particular customers needs or expects.

But the good news is that, despite the variety of factors that influence customer expectations it’s the business itself that’s in the driver’s seat. As the business owner or manager, you are best placed to determine what customers should expect when they engage with your business. The management of expectations is not about dictating to customers but about setting you and your business up for a mutually rewarding long-term relationship with your customers.

At a basic level, you may state on your company website and in other communications that your customers can expect to receive their product orders within 7 to 10 days. So the customer expectation is that a late delivery is one that arrives 11 or more days after their order is placed. But if you have systems in place that ensure that at least 80% of orders arrive within 6 days, you not only meet but exceed customer expectations the vast majority of the time. The result: delighted customers who are only too happy to do business with you again. And the reason you achieved that is that you set the customer expectation in the first place, and then over-delivered on that promise.

As for that other 20%, particularly those orders where you know that the promise of 10 days or earlier can’t be fulfilled, what do you do? In fact, what do you do in any situation where you have a pretty good idea of the customer expectation and a similarly strong sense of your inability to meet it? In those scenarios – and, let’s face it, they happen more often than we’d like – communication and transparency are key. As quickly as possible, the customer should be informed that there’s been a snag (and what that snag is) and that steps are being taken to address it so that the customer is minimally inconvenienced. And whether the problem is your company’s fault or not, an apology should be offered for the simple reason that your business will not be able to deliver on its promise.

This raises another question: How should the customer be informed of a problem? People like to be treated like the human beings they are, rather than as an entry in a business’s customer database. The more personalised the communication is, the less likely it is that the customer will view your business poorly. So pick up the phone rather than send an email. Be transparent about the problem and empathetic of the customer’s unfortunate predicament. 

In fact, transparency and honesty should be a feature of all your communications with actual and prospective customers, whether there’s a problem or not. There should also be consistency across all communication channels, from your website to social media through to email and whatever gets said over phone or in person. Conflicting messages can create confusion and sow the seeds for customer dissatisfaction.

What else might be useful to know when it comes to managing customer expectations? Here are some other tips.

Staff training


The more well-informed an employee is when dealing with a customer, the more likely it is that that customer will be told the right thing. Sure, that sounds self-evident, but a lot of businesses fail to adequately train their front-line staff and it’s a trap you don’t want to fall into. Your employees should be experts in the things they talk to your customers about, including what customers can expect when doing business with your company. Well-trained staff are also better equipped to anticipate customer needs and to deal effectively with difficult-to-please customers. And by educating your workforce properly, you minimise the risk that a customer will receive conflicting messages from different agents about the same issue.

Set a ‘do not over-promise’ rule


Particularly when dealing with impatient or otherwise difficult customers, it can be tempting to promise the customer more than what’s likely achievable. While this may provide the short-term benefit of satisfying the customer in the moment, you risk creating a disappointed customer down the track when what was promised is less than what’s delivered. All customer-facing personnel should be warned against this. It’s much better to be realistic about what the customer can expect than to gamble with shaky promises.

Follow up

Whether it’s by phone, in person or via email, following up with a customer after they’ve done business with your company is a good practice to adopt. Is the customer satisfied with what they’ve received? Are there any outstanding issues to resolve or ways that that customer can be better served by your business in the future? By following up with the customer you will learn that extra bit more about how well your business is satisfying its customers. And, once again, this practice shows that you care about your customers as human beings and not simply as account entries.

To wrap up…


Regardless of the size of your business or your industry, effective customer expectation management will help you stay competitive and successful over the long term. The best customers are those who are loyal to your business, and when you consistently deliver on your promises and properly address problems that may occasionally arise you built a foundation of loyalty and trust. When the people your business deals with have a great customer experience, positive word-of-mouth spreads and this in turn can result in more customers. And bigger profits.

So what if a customer walks away unhappy with an aspect of your business? Here are some tips on how to communicate effectively with a disgruntled customer.