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Great Expectations: Has Managing Expectations Become a Lost Art?

Is There an Expectations Gap Between Your Customer’s Perceptions and Their Actual Experience?

To begin with and to set expectations, this post will be of interest if you are in sales or business development or another client facing role. If not external client facing, you may have internal clients and deadlines to meet for internal stakeholders. Effective setting of expectations impacts most people in their daily work activities and can have a positive impact for both internal and external client satisfaction.

Is it Just Me? Is Expectation Setting Being Ignored?

For business development and sales professionals, we are most likely aware of the critical importance of managing our client’s expectations, initially prior to a sale and throughout the client relationship process.

I read a post recently, “The Complete Guide to Customer Expectations”,which captures the essence which I’m trying to make here in this post, from a customer expectations perspective. Prior to “setting” expectations, you may also want to understand your client’s or customer’s expectations to begin with. Essentially, it should come down to under promising and over delivering… why is that concept becoming so foreign?

Perhaps, many of you have felt disappointed when you were about to buy something or shortly after you made a purchase and encountered an “un-welcome surprise” that wasn’t disclosed prior to or during the sales process? A surprise that caused you to seriously reconsider or cancel the purchase altogether? It might even have driven you to share a negative opinion of the vendor with your offline or online network?

Early in my business development and sales career, the effective setting of a client’s expectations was integrated into most of our sales and business development training and considered an essential “best practice” for high client satisfaction and a solution’s success. Over time, through my experiences and observations, I find that “setting client expectations” is becoming a lost art. I’ve included an “expectations” observation that will serve as an example and a framework to help alleviate the concern.

Wardrobe Box Promotion – “Your Website Says You Sell Them?

A few months ago, my family was on a long overdue mission of de-cluttering our home. To store some of our clothes, we needed “wardrobe” boxes. I Googled “wardrobe box” and our city name and was delighted to see relevant search results. I selected the first organic result and was directed to the web page of a prominent moving and supplies company that had a sale on wardrobe boxes and a phone number to call for the promotion. At this point, my expectations were high, “Great, this is going to be easy” … or so I thought.

I called the phone number and asked the person who greeted me about the wardrobe box promotion. Unfortunately, they didn’t even know what a wardrobe box was… I mentioned the promotion and began to explain what a wardrobe box was and what we needed it for. She still didn’t seem aware, and after searching her product database without finding anything, put me on hold to ask around… She returned to the phone to tell me they didn’t have stock of the wardrobe box but could have them shipped in from across the country… for an extra cost!

My high expectations were now deflated… In my view, there are a few different opportunities for improvement here, from internal training to communications across the different lines of business about preparing and delivering on promises and promotions. As a buyer, there are steps that we take, prior to reaching out, that could take many months (or longer than a year), or just a few minutes. Companies should be aware that our expectations are set during our research and our buyers journey. In this example, my expectations were high when I saw the promotion on the website but were gradually depleted as the process was prolonged and confusion set in. A lost opportunity for the seller.

Defining the Disconnect – “What about B2B?”

Setting expectations should apply in all sales environments, in my opinion, including Business to Business (B2B). Business to Consumer (B2C) customers’ expectations are driven by their previous experiences with a company or the company’s reputation, and B2B client’s expectations are driven by the contract or agreement they negotiated and agreed upon.

So where exactly is the expectations disconnect? Where are solution providers falling short? I like the way this “Bridging the Gap in B2B Service Expectations” article and the linked whitepaper break expectations down into three types:

  • Failure of the customer to buy what they need
  • Failure of the vendor to deliver the designed solution
  • Failure of the vendor to execute on the solution

Common scenarios where expectations aren’t aligned

It may be difficult to set expectations externally, when internally, the lines of business have different expectations or a different understanding about what’s important to the company. My quest for moving supplies is a relevant example of what can happen when sales, marketing and operations are not in alignment.

From a line of business perspective, here is a helpful Forbes article which provides some insights on what different lines of businesses expect from each other.

How to Improve Expectations Alignment – “What Are They? … We Sell Those?”

Setting expectations can also be a part of the digital experience, the perception or expectations created while the future customer or client is reading your website content, downloading your online materials, or during any other touch points of their research in advance of doing business with you.

Other expectations insights:

Consider the full experience. Expectations aren’t just for future clients or customers, consider your current customers’ expectations as well. Each stage in the buyer’s journey should be considered when setting expectations

Get agreement or buy-in. Don’t just state your expectations – make sure they align with your customers thinking or what they believe about your business. Avoid the assumption that they “get it”, just because you think you did a great job explaining your solution, agreement or proposals

Alert the other party of changes immediately. As a personal “managing expectations” best practice, I always ask my internal delivery team how much time they need to deliver on a client or stakeholder requirement. They will provide me with a time they are confident to deliver on that expectation. In addition, I also ask them to let me know in advance if they cannot meet that commitment so I can re-set my client or stakeholder’s expectations accordingly. Telling me that you are going to be late, shortly before or when the requirement is due would be an expectations management fail. In my books, also responding with a low quality or sub-standard response that also doesn’t meet expectations is the same as being late.

Wrapping it up…

Perhaps the customer service representative at the moving supplies company wasn’t aware of the wardrobe box promotion or wasn’t trained about company products. The key to fulfilling external expectations is to ensure every department and employee knows what the company stands for and how to deliver on that promise.

Maybe it comes down to alignment, communications and training? How can your client’s expectations be set properly, if the internal lines of business are not communicating effectively?

There are bound to be times when you can’t meet expectations – everyone is human, and some circumstances are out of our control, however I found these best practices, approach, and expectation setting philosophies works for me.


Robert (Rob) Burns is a digital business development specialist in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Rob prefers to discuss a business strategy with his clients before talking about any technology, marketing or digital tactics.  Once Rob understands a client’s business objectives, he will then advise them about gnooko services and solutions: including Digital Marketing Strategy, Audience Segmentation and Persona Development, Website Design and Development, Search Marketing and SEO, Social Marketing and of course Inbound Marketing, Marketing Automation, and Marketing Technology.


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