4 Rules For Setting Customer Expectations

difficult customer

What do these three statements have in common?

“This customer just has expectations that are way too high…”

“We got this done in record time. I don’t understand why the people at head office aren’t happy…”

“If the customer wanted more, they should have asked for it…”

There are actually two things they have in common. The first is that they are all situations where a customer (internal or external) is dissatisfied. The second is that they are all situations in which someone failed to adequately manage someone else’s expectations. This is easily the most common root cause of customer dissatisfaction and conflict.

It's not the customers' fault

When you stop to think about it, is it really the stupid customer’s own fault that they don’t understand your business as well as you do?  Is the customer really an idiot for asking for the wrong thing, and you just gave them what they asked for without clariffying? I think not.

Here’s the deal: If you’re a custom homebuilder for example, and your customer believes it only takes three weeks to build a home – and you do nothing to change that belief, then that customer has every right to be grouchy when week four rolls around and they don’t have a house yet.

Yes, you can try and console yourself by blaming the customer for not having ‘common sense,’ but that’s really quite unfair. What is common sense for a brain surgeon during surgery, for example, is likely not even in the realm of most other people’s body of knowledge. Does that make us fools? No. It makes the surgeon the expert. Just as you are the expert in your role.

One of the most valuable things you can do – for your customer and for yourself – is to make sure that everyone is on the same page in terms of expectations, and that as few things as possible are left to interpretation. Here are a few general rules worth remembering:

4 rules for setting customer expectations

1. Don’t assume
Understand that your internal and external customers don’t have your unique combination of knowledge, expertise and perspective. Don’t treat them like children, of course, but always make a point to ensure they understand the process or project you’re working on.

2. Be specific
Don’t, for example, say, “I’ll get right back to you.” If it’s going to take 20 minutes or an hour, your customer will be ticked if they are expecting 3-5 minutes. Give a time frame.

3. Ask for specifics
If someone says, “I need this for a proposal I’m sending in on Wednesday,” don’t assume Wednesday is your deadline. They might need it a day early. Ask for clarification on how they are going to be using it, and what else might be part of the presentation.

4. Be brave
Sometimes we default to telling someone what they want to hear so that they won’t be angry at us. We’ll say things like, “We should have it by next week,” when we know it could actually take 3-4 weeks. The problem is that this person will now be even more angry after the first week has gone by. You’re better to deal with the initial disappointment, than with the subsequent anger.

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