The rise in “customer power” over the last few years cannot have escaped many people’s attention. This exalted status for customers is no accident. Rather, it comes from a hard-headed financial view: namely, when all is said and done, the customer pays the bills.

We have also seen the rise of the destructive side of customer power. Social media can turn a disgruntled customer into an instant virtual terrorist, enlisting hundreds, thousands or even more bystanders in a crusade against a hapless supplier.

The question, then, is how can we make our customers evangelists instead of terrorists? The simple answer is that we have to offer exceptional value and a competitively superior customer experience.

The real question is how to do it.

This elusive goal is the holy grail of many companies today. Larger companies embark on market research, customer surveys, big data, collaborative forums; all in the hope that they can hit the right sweet spot before it moves again. For some, that level of complexity, workload and uncertain outcomes is just too cumbersome to deal with, so they rely upon educated guesswork, gut feel and some customer satisfaction feedback to guide their journey.

However, we have noticed that many organisations often step over the first fundamental starting point – that of knowing and understanding customers’ expectations. After all, how can you begin to meet and exceed customer expectations if you don’t know with some precision what they are?

The reason for this apparent oversight may simply be that gathering expectations is not as simple as it sounds. One must first understand what an expectation really is, and then understand the implications involved in gathering and utilising them to good effect.

What IS an “Expectation”?

“Customer Expectations” is commonplace term, and nearly everyone understands it in a rather visceral way. It is so commonplace that we tend to take its meaning for granted. However, of great significance to marketers and researchers is the rarely understood fact that “customer expectations” has two very different meanings. This matters because combining the two meanings leads to confusion and misinterpretation of data.

One type of expectation is a prediction. For example; If I have had consistently bad experiences with a provider, I might reasonably expect (predict) my next experience will also be bad.

The other type is an ideal expectation. In this sense of the word, an expectation is a desired state; it defines the ideal attribute of a product, service, transaction, relationship, or performance desired by a customer.

The ideal is where we, at Promising Outcomes, focus our attention. The heart of the theory of expectations is that customer judgments and, to a significant degree, customer motivations and actions are influenced by perceptions of how well the supplier has performed against their ideal expectations. By aspiring to reach the ideal as the target, companies can set meaningful goals for delivery and overall performance.

Although developed with external customers in mind, expectations theory works equally well within an internal customer framework, for employees of an organization or the citizens of a community. In fact, its applications in transactions or even social interactions are virtually limitless.

Insights about Gathering Expectations

Fortunately, years of research and testing has enabled us at Promising Outcomes to develop reliable processes and tools for making customer expectations explicit and clear. Here are some of the discoveries we have made.

The heart of the matter is to ask customers for their expectations. The art is in how the asking is conducted. Simply asking customers for their expectations of a company, product or service is likely to surface both types of expectations. Some customers may see it as an opportunity to vent and recount their grievances and bad experiences. Some may figure they can ask for the sky without taking into account organisational constraints. Yet others might confine their thinking to what they think is possible or available without giving guidance on what to aim for. These multiple responses can be a lot to unravel; It is possible, but not preferable. Consequently, our own methods of gathering expectations have been honed specifically to avoid these pitfalls.

The good news is that expectations tend to be widely shared by customers. Of course, every customer is unique and will have his or her own set. But once you have talked with more than a handful of customers, the landscape generally becomes clear. Normally, we identify between thirty and seventy distinct expectations of a supplier. Of these, perhaps fifteen to twenty-five will be widely shared and important to customers. The rest will be expectations for only a few customers.

Expectations are robust and relatively persistent. Obviously, disruptive innovation in an industry can massively affect expectations. But even in quieter industries, it pays to check expectations every few years.

Some customer expectations are nearly universal. For example, customers always want to be treated courteously by knowledgeable employees. (A no-brainer, right?  Of course, we all have been “served” by companies that seemingly fail to understand even this basic requirement.) However, any industry will have expectations specific to it; expectations surfaced for one kind of business will not fit another.

How do Expectations work with Customer Surveys?

If you truly know your customers’ expectations, everything that follows in the value chain, from your product/service design through to performance and satisfaction assessment, becomes that much more on-target.

Without insight into expectations, most customer satisfaction surveys are either created internally with questions devised by management who are out of touch with customers, or are bland, off-the-shelf questionnaires that don’t speak to the uniqueness of the company and its customers. Such surveys inevitably miss the mark.

Many of us will testify to feeling bombarded by an increasing number of customer surveys that seem poorly constructed, or are just out of sync with what we as the customer think is most important.

It is easy to see how the disconnect between the customer and the supplier often starts its journey here. The customer is at risk of becoming increasingly disillusioned, whilst the supplier risks wasting energy and resources on initiatives started from customer feedback that is fundamentally misaligned.

At Promising Outcomes, we dispense altogether with the notion of customer satisfaction and use the customers’ expectations as the basis for customer research and performance measurement. Our surveys are designed to measure the gap between customer expectations and customer perception of actual performance. We also measure competitor performance in the same manner. In so doing, critical areas of opportunity and areas needing improvement are highlighted. With these insights, our clients are able to make product, service or strategy improvements and decisions which are most significant in driving customer loyalty and marketplace differentiation.

Making sense of expectations – The Customer Expectations Map

One of the tools developed by Bill Fonvielle, one of our founding partners, is something we call a Customer Expectations Map.

An expectations map is a formatted display of the expectations of a group of customers with respect to a provider or supplier. It is structured to be easy to understand and use.

The map is useful as a standalone tool for educating employees about what matters to customers, or for thinking through process, product or service design and development, or for making hiring decisions. But it can also be a springboard to deeper customer insights.

An expectations map also answers the question: “What should we ask in our customer survey?” The expectations map is inherently relevant because the content comes directly from customers. Thus, a good expectations map makes creating a good customer survey a straightforward proposition.

The Expectations Map organises the expectations into a meaningful hierarchical structure rooted in research and verified through experience. At the top of this structure are three domains – Service Quality, Product Quality, and Cost which together encompass the whole of the customer experience.

The domains also encompass the realm of customer expectations. In other words, customer expectations are all about the customer experience. The domains can be further defined as follows:

  • what it is customers receive (product quality, which includes service when service is the product)
  • how they receive it, that is, what their experience is like in receiving it (service quality)
  • and cost, what they have to spend over time for the privilege of owning or using it.

Thus, the domains of Product Quality, Service Quality and Cost are the broadest categories of expectations displayed in the map.

The next level of detail is the dimensions of Product and Service Quality and Cost.

These dimensions are displayed in the partial example below.

Interestingly, the percentage of expectations that fall into Service Quality is almost always between 65% and 75%, a figure that corresponds nicely with an iconic research finding by the Forum Corporation that about 70% of the reasons given by both consumers and business purchasers for switching from one supplier to another are due to Service Quality issues. This already gives you a clue that purely product-focused companies are missing an essential part of the customers psyche.

The validity of this framework has been demonstrated over hundreds of cases, although some dimensions may not be relevant for the customers of a given industry.

While the dimensions of quality and cost are relatively generic and constant across industry and product/service lines, the content of the dimensions as well as the number of relevant dimensions varies from industry to industry and for each product or service category.

We have only talked about maps constructed for displaying the expectations of customers for a product or service. We also regularly produce maps for:

  • expectations that employees have of an employer,
  • expectations that customers have of sales representatives,
  • expectations that various internal functions in an organization have of a given internal function,
  • expectations that a customer project team has of the vendor project team, and so on.

In these cases, the domains, dimensions and specific expectations are distinct and different to the model above, but the principle of mapping expectations for clarity is still valid. .

Ultimately, a good customer expectations map captures the authentic voice of the customer. Expectations gathering and mapping is the first step in developing highly focused, customer-friendly survey and diagnostic instruments that provide clear and actionable data. The real payoff is a deeper understanding of customers – profound knowledge that can point the way to profitable growth for any company.

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