The Magic of Customer Expectations:  How to Know What Customers Really Want

Not so long ago many companies viewed customers as just a necessary inconvenience.   Like vaccinations, you had to have them from time to time, but the encounter was often a tiny bit painful.

But today, countless books, articles, and business videos attest to the priority of the customer in the world of enterprise.  This exalted status for customers—still not fully acknowledged everywhere—is no accident.  Rather, it comes from a hard-headed financial view: namely, when all is said and done, the customer pays the bills.

And of course, we have seen the rise of the destructive side of customer power.  YouTube, blogs and other web devices can turn a disgruntled customer into an instant virtual terrorist, enlisting hundreds, thousands or even more bystanders in a crusade against a hapless supplier.

That being said, the question then is, how can we wring the greatest profits from customers?   The simple answer is that we have to make many existing and potential customers want to do business with us, and on terms that leave money in our pockets.  Given a product in high demand and short supply in which we own an absolute monopoly, “no problem.”  But most of us don’t enjoy that luxury.  So, to get customers to behave in the marketplace as we would want them to, we have to offer them value and a competitively superior experience. That is, enough aspects of our product, our service, our price, and the joys of dealing with our people must be good enough to weigh in our favour more often than not.

Hardly anyone questions this point nowadays.  The problem is what to do about it. 

The first step is to learn what turns your customers on, or more precisely, to determine their needs, wants and expectations. Only in that way can you begin to meet and exceed customer expectations in ways that lead to profitable growth.

Fortunately, we’ve developed reliable processes and tools for making customer expectations explicit and clear. The end-product is something we call a customer expectations map.   The map is a detailed list of the expectations that customers have of a product or service and its providers, but it is structured so as to make it easy to understand and use.  The map is useful in its own right as a tool for educating employees about what matters to customers, or for thinking through process, product or service design and development.  But it can also be a springboard for a deeper understanding of customers.   For example, the content of an expectations map answers the question:  “What should we ask about in our customer satisfaction survey?”

The plain truth is that most customer satisfaction surveys miss the intended respondent in important ways, and that means that companies often make decisions based on incomplete information or unactionable data.  Think back on your own experience getting consumer surveys in the mail, or the magic moment of that telephone call just when you sit down to dinner.  How often have you said to yourself “That survey just didn’t seem relevant to my experience as a customer?”  Well, actually, you probably never said exactly that, but the point remains. 

The expectations map is inherently relevant because the content all comes directly from customers.   What matters is the customer’s perception of how well the provider is performing against his or her expectations, especially in a competitive context.   Thus, a good expectations map makes creating a good customer survey a straightforward proposition.

On the next few pages we will provide more detail about expectations maps and the data gathering processes used to construct them.

The Underlying Theory

Whether they are implicit or explicit, customers for a product or service inevitably have a set of expectations concerning the provider or vendor.  Expectations can take two forms.  One form is similar to a prediction. For example, before visiting I might predict a long wait in line for a favourite ride at an amusement park.  Based, perhaps, on my previous experience or a friend’s word of mouth, I actually expect a thirty-minute wait. 

However, when I arrive at the park I observe that it seems understaffed and disorganised, and not especially concerned about its customers.  I know it could do much better with a little effort on the part of park employees.  I also have a recollection of park advertising that promised no wait for most rides.  What’s more, I remember a similar park not far away where I never had to wait more than ten minutes for a ride.   All things being equal, therefore, I expect this park to not make me wait very long for my ride.   

It is this latter form of expectation that we have in mind when we refer to expectations mapping.  In this sense of the word, an expectation is a desired state; it defines the ideal interaction with the supplier and the product or service from the customer’s perspective.   The heart of the theory of expectations is that customer quality judgments, and to a significant degree, customer motivations and actions in the marketplace are influenced by perceptions of how well the supplier has performed against expectations. In our research therefore, we routinely explore the gap between customers’ expectations and their perceptions of our client’s performance.

Unfortunately, customer expectations are implicit more often than not.  A customer may not think about an expectation until and unless the supplier egregiously violates it.  The first task, therefore, is to learn from customers their expectations of a supplier—or more properly, an industry or product/service – even when customers themselves are not too certain what they are.

What makes the task a little easier is the fact 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 can identify anywhere between about thirty and seventy distinct expectations of a supplier.  Of these, perhaps twenty to forty will be widely shared and important to customers in the aggregate. The rest will be expectations for only a few customers. 

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; a map for one kind of business will not fit another. 

Expectations Mapping and the Dimensions of Quality and Cost

An expectations map is a formatted display of the expectations of a group of customers with respect to a provider or supplier. An expectation, in this sense, is an attribute of product, service, transaction, relationship, or a level of performance desired by a customer. Although developed with external customers in mind, expectations mapping works equally well within an internal customer framework, employees of an organization or the citizens of a community.  In fact, its applications are limitless.

Sticking for the moment to the supplier-customer paradigm, customers typically have expectations about what it is they actually 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 expend 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.

The next level of detail is the dimensions of Product and Service Quality and Cost.  The dimensions of Service Quality are well known and well established thanks to years of research conducted by three marketing professors, A. Parasuraman, Len Berry and Valarie Zeithaml, under the auspices of the Marketing Sciences Institute.  Product Quality and Cost also exhibit a consistent dimensional structure.  These two domains have been the subject of far less formal study, but they have been verified in our work with many dozens of organisations.  The Deltapoint Corporation suggested the structure of Product Quality to us, while the dimensions of Cost emerged from our own customer-based research. The 11 dimensions are shown on the chart below.

Interestingly, irrespective of whether a company is a service business or a product business, a majority of the expectations surfaced for it will fall into the realm of Service Quality. Almost always, the percentage of expectations that relate to Service Quality is between 65% and 75%, a figure that corresponds nicely with an iconic research finding 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. (Forum Corporation)

The Dimensions of Quality and Cost



Expectation Examples

Service Quality

Reliability concerns dependability, meeting promises, continuity of personnel and consistency of performance

  • Do what you promised to do
  • Do it right the first time
  • Honour your warranties and guarantees

Assurance has to do with the ability to inspire trust and confidence in customers

  • Serve me with knowledgeable employees
  • Be the industry leader

Tangibles include the physical manifestations of service

  • Use up-to-date equipment
  • Have well-dressed employees

Empathy refers to practices that suggest respect, caring, and the provision of individual attention

  • Refer to me by my name
  • Understand my needs
  • Be open at convenient hours

Responsiveness implies the willingness or readiness of employees to help and to provide timely service

  • Return my calls promptly
  • Bring problems to my attention
  • Be available when I need you

Product Quality

Grade refers to image, design, and the care with the product or service is made or provided

  • Pay attention to detail
  • Design innovative products
  • Do error-free work

Fitness for Use refers to customer needs or requirements for performance

  • Make it safe to use
  • Offer a range of features to meet my needs

Conformance to Specifications has to do with required standards and specifications

  • Supply product with fewer than .003% defective parts
  • Follow ISO 9000 guidelines


Price refers to the sticker or quoted price of the product or service

  • Price competitively
  • Make cost consistent with benefit

Incentives is the promise of reward or the provision of protection against loss

  • Offer case discounts
  • Give frequent flyer miles to loyal customers

Usage refers to costs incurred over time by the customer

  • Offer energy efficient products
  • Keep repair costs low

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

An expectations map typically displays expectations at three levels of detail (see the example).  In addition, some maps also display the expectations individually expressed by customers.  This is done to make sure the authentic and complete voice of the customer is captured. 

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. 

The categories provide a level of detail that is usable but not overwhelming in number (typically, a customer group will voice between twenty-five and seventy expectations at this level).  This level of detail, and the more specific actual words of customers, provides great fodder for creating customer-focused survey questionnaires or content for customer service training programs.  Expectation maps also often indicate the relative importance of the categories to a customer group, assuming this information has been gathered.

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

  • displaying the 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 each of these cases, the domains, dimensions and specific expectations are distinct and distinctive. 

How Our Clients Use Expectation Maps

Maps are most often used to develop customer-focused customer surveys.  Organisations that have used expectations maps for this purpose include one of the world’s largest soft drink companies, the commercial division of a large bank, a leading national residential estate agency, an international manufacturer of athletic shoes and clothing, a major operator of petrol and convenience stores, an international vehicle tyre manufacturer and a global training and management consulting firm among many dozens of organisations in almost every conceivable industry.  Other organisations, such as the financial services division of a large car manufacturer, have used employee expectations maps to develop employee-centric surveys.

Customer expectation maps have been created for many purposes other than the development of surveys. 

  • A national provider of temporary corporate housing used its map not only to create a survey questionnaire, but also as a source document for a tactics guide that advises housing managers how to fix customer problems and address quality issues.
  • An estate developer used a map to determine the types of development that neighbourhood residents would be most comfortable with.
  • A religious institution used one to determine the attributes the congregation would most value in a new spiritual leader. 
  • A well-known foreign policy research institute used its map to gain insights into member and donor retention. 
  • A market research firm used its map to explore how the expectations of its customers in fourteen countries were similar and dissimilar to each other in order to fine tune its offerings.
  • A leading publisher of business information looked for new product ideas.   
  • A global manufacturer of laboratory equipment used expectations research to understand customers’ vision of the behavioural and personality traits of an ideal sales representative. 
  • A performing arts organization learned the expectations of single ticket buyers. 
  • The executive education and development department of a major insurance company used its employee map to shape program and training development while other organizations have used expectations maps as input for customer service training.

A good customer expectations map may have many uses.  However used, it is the authentic voice of the customer.

How We Use Expectation Maps

Expectations mapping lies at the heart of four of our client service offerings:

  • Strategic Customer Research (SCR) includes expectations mapping and a subsequent quantitative survey, and is used to measure the gaps between customer expectations and customers’ perceptions of client and competitor performance.
  • Strategic Sales Force Research (SSR), often done in conjunction with SCR, examines the performance of a sales force against expectations of customers.
  • Strategic Employee Research (SER) is analogous to SCR except that the focus is the employees of an organization.
  • Cross-check takes the internal customer perspective when one or multiple functions gather the expectations of other functions in the value chain.
  • PROMIS is a consulting service that includes the gathering of highly actionable data for use in creating and monitoring plans for improving the working relationship between customers and suppliers.

In each case, expectations mapping is the first step in developing highly focused and customer-friendly survey and diagnostic instruments that provide clear and actionable data.

How We Gather Expectations and Prepare Maps

We use qualitative methods to gather customer expectations.  Although interviews might be used in special circumstances, in general we prefer face-to-face or “virtual” focus groups.  For face-to-face groups, we always use Nominal Group Technique (NGT) and when practical we prefer it.  However, focus groups may be prohibitively expensive to conduct, especially if customers are widely dispersed geographically or speak different languages. Under these circumstances, we may use any of a number of on-line tools including web conferencing and simple e-surveys which collectively we call Virtual Group Technique (VGT.)

The essence of these methods could not be simpler.  We ask participants to tell us what their expectations are of an ideal supplier of the given product or service, or in the case of employees, an ideal employer in their industry.  Expectations voiced by individuals are incorporated in a list, the items of which can then be ranked by frequency or multi-voting.  Finally, the maps are assembled by means of affinity-sorting.

Nominal Group Technique and some forms of Virtual Group Technique are highly structured, special purpose techniques that are designed to take advantage of some of the synergies of group process while avoiding the tendencies of individual group members to dominate discussion or exert undue influence on others.  The methods are especially well-suited to the creation of lists and the establishment of priorities among the items on a list. 

Provided that group participants are broadly representative of the target population, we have found that three to four physical focus groups or thirty to fifty active participants in a virtual group are sufficient to generate a good expectations map.  This is true even when the target population is large.  The reason is that expectations tend to be both robust and widely shared.  As seen below, each group added to the three in the diagram would provide little new learning.

With either VGT or NGT, the tangible end-product is a comprehensive list of customer expectations.   But the real end-product is a deeper understanding of customers, their requirements and issues, and how they view your performance – profound knowledge that can point the way to profitable growth for any company.   

If you would like to know more, please contact

By William Fonvielle