What’s Your Surprise?

Managing expectations is the first step to high customer satisfaction.

Jim Stein
Published Date: December 18, 2023

How your team delivers on your customers’ expectations forms the basis for their satisfaction. So, it’s worth reviewing the implications of this basic fact and relooking at your internal customer-related processes to ensure they’re having the desired effect.


What expectations do your customers have? First, before they even contact your company, they bring all their past experiences with services that they consider similar to yours. The other day, I was helping my wife do an online check-in and add a new frequent flyer number to her airline reservation. There was a problem with the exact spelling of her name, and the airline website kept rejecting both the check-in and the new frequent flyer. After about 10 minutes of unsuccessful trying, I came to the conclusion that we would need to actually phone the airline. Since these types of web problems occur fairly frequently with large, older companies, I was a bit frustrated, but not really surprised. So, I asked my wife to go through what would likely be an excruciating process of calling the airline’s phone tree, figuring we were in for a half-hour of waiting and transfers. I was happily surprised when, within a couple minutes, she reached a live person named Pat who was able to go through each problem without transferring the call. Ten minutes later, every issue was resolved and we were super-satisfied! Why were we super-satisfied when all the airline did was handle a fairly simple phone call? Because we’ve all had the past experience of dealing with a big bureaucracy and being very dissatisfied at the long hold times, difficult-to-understand accents and multiple transfers to people who weren’t qualified to address our issues.


In this particular case, we were super-satisfied precisely because we expected a long, bad experience and instead received a standard, competent response. Suppose instead that I had called my local auto repair shop, where I’ve brought our cars for a decade, and had to wade through even a simple phone tree, wait on hold for three minutes and not be recognized as a past customer when I finally reached a live person. In this scenario, I’d be dissatisfied because my expectation was that the phone would be answered quickly and I’d be recognized as a long-time customer. While I was very satisfied in the airline’s case, I would have been dissatisfied with the auto repair shop with the exact same response profile because I had different expectations when the call was made. Is that fair? No, but it’s really how customers feel. As a manager, you need to manage your team’s communications and processes based on how they’ll make customers feel, not by what you consider “fair.”


To determine how your company can improve its perceived performance when compared to expectations, meet with your team and pose these questions:


1. How would you define customer expectations for our industry/area?
Based on our type of business and community, how do our customers expect to be treated at each contact point (phone, in-person, email, mail) and what do they expect to receive in quality and turn-time of our service?


2. How would you define customer expectations based on our company’s behavior?
Based on our company’s branding, marketing and specific customer communications, how do our customers expect to be treated and what do they expect to receive in quality and turn-time of our service?


After identifying your customers’ primary expectations based on these questions, begin to detail specific areas where your company isn’t meeting normal expectations. Look at all your marketing, staff communications and delivery of operations. For the purpose of this exercise, assume that some things your company is doing (or not doing) are setting the wrong expectations that consequently lead to dissatisfaction. Your employees know; ask them. For example, is there a part of your contract that’s often misinterpreted or missed? Are turn-time estimates perceived to be inaccurate too often? Is there someone in your company who tends to return calls in three or four days when customers expect one or two days? After talking to your customer service representatives or salespeople, do some of your customers expect more than they get?


Once you’ve identified areas that create missed expectations, get together with your team and plan how you’re going to either work to change your customers’ expectations before the disconnect or change a part of the operational phase to better match these expectations.


You’ll see a big gain once you’ve matched customer expectations to customer-perceived performance…but there’s more to do. It’s time to go for the good surprise! It’s the hot cookies in the lobby of a hotel upon your arrival or the contractor who puts booties on before he enters your house. Sometimes it’s simply a proper delivery of your service, but for your industry, your customers see it as a good surprise. In some industries, a clean-cut service technician in a uniform who arrives on time with a great attitude is a major surprise.


I’m sure you’ve been able to surprise customers before with special knowledge, appearance, service or performance. The good surprise is the key to turning merely satisfied customers into super-satisfied customers. So, what’s your company’s good surprise and how can you make sure each customer experiences it? Here’s a tip: Instead of telling each customer everything your company will do for them prior to service, don’t mention one point. Instead, bring this into the service process as your team’s good surprise. Do it with every customer, every time. Get your team to understand why you’re doing it this way. Exceed expectations! Not only will you delight customers, but these super-satisfied customers are much more likely to stay loyal to your company and refer it to friends and family.

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