The Art of Balance: Customer Expectations

By Phillip Bogdanovich

This post is the second in a three-part series about the importance of expectation management, focusing on teams and employees. This portion of the series will focus on establishing customer expectation and part three will cover self-imposed expectation management.

A customer concern is a burning house. You don’t have to know anything about firefighting to know that if you don’t put the fire out, the house (your brand) will burn to the ground. Aside from losing the business of that single customer, you risk losing existing and future customers. Social media gives the disgruntled unprecedented power to make their experiences known.

One way to prevent this kind of house fire is to prevent bad customer experiences from happening in the first place. But you can’t control how customers perceive an experience. At one of my companies, a customer acknowledged that we had tried to call several times to resolve a billing issue but started slandering our customer service in public when we stopped trying to reach him. He knew we were calling, ignored our calls, and then raised hell because we didn’t try hard enough to make him answer the phone.

So what can you do? Manage customer expectations.

 

Initial Contact

Customer service begins the moment you make contact, as does the customer’s impression of you as an individual, a manager, a service provider, a problem solver and so on. Customers also bring their own predispositions to their interactions with you. They will have an opinion about what kind of dog you own and what kind of partner you are based on first contact. They don’t have to know you to feel they know you. Or your company. If a customer has a negative first impression of you, your company and your product are in trouble.

 

Write It Down

For anything in business, but especially when you’re addressing a customer need, keep notes. Lots of them. Not just because you have to protect your ass, but because writing things down aids the process of committing information to memory and devising a holistic, quality solution. Notes become especially important if solving a problem takes more than one call or the involvement of multiple parties. Everyone benefits from a complete understanding of the situation, so share your notes with your team and ask questions. If you are one of the 30 or so people in the world with perfect autobiographical recall, write it down anyway. No one likes a showoff.

 

Process

As children, many of us were told to ”think before you speak.” Customer service is no different. It’s difficult to formulate a meaningful opinion beyond a very simple, routine, scripted response to a common problem when you’re actively trying to calm an upset, loud customer. I have found that I can tell in the first three or four seconds of an interaction with a customer whether I can manage in the moment or a follow-up is needed. If I need to really think about a problem, I listen a lot and talk very little. This allows me to take in as much information as possible, and bonus—it allows the customer to vent.

So take a lot of notes and I collaborate with teammates. When I have a viable solution, I meet with the customer and very clearly state the problem or concern as I understand it, and then I outline a solution—making sure to reinforce the fact that I will continue to keep the customer informed.  I then send an email thanking them for the opportunity to solve their problem. People like solutions and they like to know they’re working with people who have answers. It makes them feel safe, and who doesn’t like that?

 

Putting It All Together

If you want to fight (or prevent) customer fires, first you need genuine concern for customers’  wellbeing. Keep working to improve whatever situation they came to you for help with. Practically all customer interactions occur because the customer needs help in some way.

Take a lot of notes, preferably digitally. I use voice to text. Do not rely on your memory; it will fail you—and you can’t readily share it. Develop a process and stick to it. Mine is to listen to the customer, take notes, formulate a solution, and then return a call or in rare cases arrange an in-person meeting. I follow up everything with an email, and repeatedly take the opportunity to restate the problem as I understand it. This helps to ensure nothing changed when I wasn’t looking. I enforce the following principles with my staff:

  • Don’t guess. Ever. Find a solution or if there isn’t a solution, say that.
  • Don’t fabricate a story to make a customer feel better. Don’t fabricate a story to make you feel better. The truth is always manageable, but lies have a nasty habit of becoming large and unruly. Unless the truth involves a body. Then probably lie.
  • Don’t make promises beyond promising to perform the best work you possibly can. I learned this years ago working in an emergency room. I promised someone their loved one would be fine because it seemed inevitable. Then the loved one died, seemingly against the odds. That’s the last time I made a promise about an outcome I couldn’t control.
  • Don’t take responsibility for things that aren’t your fault. You can acknowledge a problem without being a martyr. It’s common for people to internalize a problem and take responsibility for it as a way to diffuse a hostile situation with an angry customer. But an angry customer will already find plenty of reasons to hold you, your team, and your company responsible for things you had nothing to do with. Solve the real problem and don’t muddy the water by redistributing accountability. Don’t volunteer to put your head in the noose.
  • To quote the timeless piece of cinematic brilliance Pineapple Express, work like you’re “tryna get a mothafuckin’ scholarship.” When it comes to customers, act and produce work like your future depends on its quality, because it does.

Remember that as a leader, enforcing a code or set of principles requires uniformity. If your methods as a manager are good, you and your staff should be producing uniformly good work.


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