5 Steps to Managing Customer Expectations
Every customer is different, yet every customer wants the same things from their brands of choice. Learning how to understand customer expectations is key to driving brand loyalty and long-term business growth.
From increasing market share and strengthening brand loyalty, to lowering cost to serve while optimizing customer retention, it’s impossible to overstate the benefits of meeting customer expectations.
Not all customers are created equal and, unfortunately, organizations find themselves coming unstuck by trying to be all things to all people. But the fact is that each customer takes a different path on their route to purchasing a brand’s products or services. What’s more their personal motivations and preferences – i.e.; their customer needs – are just as likely as product quality or customer service levels to dictate whether or not an initial purchase becomes long-term brand loyalty.
This is why a customer needs analysis is a crucial first step towards understanding the key characteristics that all potential long-term customers share. However, understanding customer needs is of little use on its own. This understanding needs to be combined with an understanding of how to meet those customers’ expectations.
What Are Customer Expectations?
An expectation is a justified belief or hope that something will happen in a certain way based on a combination of past experiences and current evidence. Customer expectations are the types of service, levels of attention and the quality of interactions – positive or negative – people anticipate experiencing when engaging with a brand.
This means that, though directly related and complementary, understanding and managing customer expectations is distinct from meeting customer needs.
In order to fulfill customer needs, an organization must understand the physical and psychological factors that motivate customers to seek out and purchase a type of product or service. Customer expectations are what those customers hope to experience – the way they hope to feel – when interacting with an organization at each point on their path to purchasing that item. Customer needs influence product selection. Customer expectations dictate which brand will provide them with that product.
All of this is why the organizations that understand how to manage customer expectations stand a brand apart from their competition.
The Factors Influencing Customer Expectations
Customer expectations do not exist in a vacuum. They are shaped by both prior first-hand experiences and the experiences of others within the same peer groups. Then, they are further influenced by other factors including information within the marketplace such as online reviews or media coverage, as well as marketing activities.
Previous Customer Experience
For any brand, the most important factor influencing customer expectations is prior customer experience. Its importance lies in the fact that it’s the customer expectation over which an organization has the greatest potential control and to successfully manage.
As long as past engagements with a brand have been positive, customers will continue to come back, at least until they have an experience that fails to align with their expectations. However, it’s no longer sufficient for an organization to deliver an experience that’s equal to its direct competition. Today, consumers judge customer experience and therefore calibrate customer expectations for all brand interactions based on the best experience they have ever had, regardless of the product, service, the brand or the industry sector.
Word of Mouth and Online Ratings
Together, online review aggregation sites, social media sharing and the cult of the influencer have revolutionized the way customers both discover and discount brands on the path to purchase. In doing so they have raised the bar for customer expectations. For instance, two thirds of consumers that decide to server ties with a brand due to an interaction that did not meet or exceed customer expectations will turn to social media to articulate those frustrations.
Now add to that the fact that 85% of U.S. consumers say they will read an online review before deciding whether or not to interact with a brand and 54% of the emerging Gen Z generation say they have chosen a specific brand and bought something because it was recommended by a social media influencer.
Analog and digital communications, short-term promotions and long-term marketing strategies are all factors influencing customer expectations. Even if in today’s information overloaded world, much of the messaging is received or absorbed unconsciously. Likewise, because all businesses within the same marketplace are using the same channels for promotional campaigns, often at the same time, those competing messages can also blur into one unified voice. This can start to influence perceptions around an entire product category even if two brands have very different market propositions or addressable audiences.
How to Understand Customer Expectations
So, with so many different drivers steering consumer behavior, how can an organization understand and then start managing customer expectations?
There are a number of proven qualitative and quantitative processes at any organization’s disposal, such as needs assessments, focus groups or Voice of the Customer (VOC) programs. Over time, if correctly applied, they will start to paint a clear picture regarding customer expectations and perceptions of services. However, there are also a number of immediate steps an organization can take to close the gap between their brand promise and customer expectations before gathering, crunching and analyzing huge swathes of data.
1. Remove Customer Frustrations
All customers are different. However, all customers are united in certain expectations. It’s not a question of what they want to experience, it’s a question of how they want to experience it. The first step to managing customer expectations is to recognize that all customers want to encounter as little friction as possible when interacting with a brand. Therefore, begin by examining all existing touchpoints along customer journeys. Are there instances where customers are required to apply too much effort in order to meet certain objectives?
This is where metrics such as Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) scores prove an invaluable starting point. Are scores similar across all channels and touchpoints, or are certain types of interaction underperforming?
For this reason it’s also crucial to examine existing digital assets. Are websites and apps simple to use? An intuitive web experience is now at the top of the list when it comes to customer expectations regarding digital interactions. Don’t forget, post-pandemic more people than ever are engaging with brands via the web – and a large percentage of consumers are doing so for the first time. Therefore, be certain that navigation is clear and no learning curve is required.
2. Help Customers to Help Themselves
Customer expectations do not include having to contact a brand directly for the answer to a basic question. Provide self-service tools that empower your customers to solve their own simple problems rather than having to connect with a live agent.
Most customers who are in a phone or chat queue to speak with a representative have already tried to find an answer to their question or a solution to the problem either via the brand’s website or through using a search engine.
Providing content and tools – knowledge bases, up-to-date FAQs or even chatbots – will deliver a positive CX in line with customer expectations for those who use them. This channel shift will have an added positive knock-on effect. With more customers using self-service tools, contact volumes into live channels will decrease, thus shortening wait times for others with different types of issues requiring more attention in order to achieve a resolution.
In other words, managing the customer expectations of one group will help an organization in exceeding the expectations of another.
3. Provide Consistent Customer Care
Different customers prefer using different channels for different reasons. However, what they don’t expect is to have a different experience or a different quality of interaction simply due to channel preference.
There must be a consistency of service, whether a customer engages via voice, live chat, email, social messaging or a chatbot. That’s a consistency extends beyond wait times, it’s a consistency of information and the same probability of achieving a first-contact resolution to a problem or issue.
But this consistency needs to go even further still. There’s a high possibility that an interaction that starts with a chatbot will require escalation – virtual agents are at their best when they quickly and efficiently meet the most common customer needs. Therefore, if the issue in question requires a live agent’s skills, transferring the customer and that customer’s information should be seamless. The customer should not be required to start again, explaining for a second time why he or she requires help or assistance.
And the same is true for a customer who usually communicates via email but then chooses the phone for a follow up. That agent needs to have all pertinent information relating to past interactions at his or her fingertips in order to deliver on customer expectations in that moment.
Of course, this level of consistency is only possible with a true omnichannel engagement platform. However, no matter how customer expectations continue evolving, with an omnichannel platform in place, it will always be relatively simple to continue making the adjustments and improvements necessary for managing customer expectations.
4. Clarity and Responsiveness
Marketing and communications should help to set and clarify rather than overpromise on the subject of customer expectations. These prompts are an opportunity to promote a value proposition. Increasingly, customers equate a positive customer experience with value for money. In other words, how accurately the quality of a product or service, plus the experience of the interactions surrounding the purchase and ongoing support are reflected in its price.
However, organizations need to remember, that just like all other interactions, marketing and external communications are now conversations – not statements. So, for instance, if an experience leads to a customer posting – positively or negatively – on a social media platform, that brand has a responsibility to acknowledge the praise, or to recognize that they could have done more. It’s in these conversations that authentic marketing is created. Likewise, social channels are ideal for going beyond responsiveness and becoming proactive. If an issue is arising that could negatively impact how an organization meets customer expectations, tell your followers.
5. Converse with You Customers
Once these initial steps have been taken, an organization is ready to take a long-term approach to managing customer expectations. It’s time to engage with them to understand the diversity of the potential audience, and how broad the spectrum of potential hopes and needs that sit on either side of the biggest factors influencing customer expectations.
Customers expect to be heard. Therefore, directly involve your best customers in the CX improvement process. The careful use of targeted surveys alongside a recurring VOC program will provide the best possible insights and will provide the benchmark against which to measure performance in relation to customer expectations.
Meeting customer expectations has become a very fluid occupation. As the pandemic has clearly demonstrated, everything can change unexpectedly at any time. Therefore, in addition to engaging with your own customers, look at the industry as a whole or study demographic groups to try and monitor and identify emerging trends. Regular market research and consumer analysis can prove invaluable in identifying new opportunities to manage emerging expectations or for helping in the decision-making process regarding new tools, technologies and processes that could bring further efficiencies and performance gains regarding customer experience delivery.
Customers now have great expectations, but with the right focus, tools and processes, any organization has a great opportunity to meet those expectations.