Setting Expectations: How You Can Win with Your Customers Every Time

Have you ever had an experience where you were sure the customer was going to love your work, only to find out they were disappointed or downright ticked? It was your best effort, or so you thought, and everything was delivered on time. So how could this happen? Where did you go wrong… or did you?

If you want to achieve success with most any customer, in most any situation, then it really boils down to this – you need to set proper expectations.

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Sounds simple enough, by doing this one critical thing you can eliminate frustration, open more effective channels of communication, and have both parties satisfied with the results. Truly! And here’s a little bonus, this does not just apply to business relationships, but can be used to great effect with co-workers, friends, family, spouses… just about anyone with whom you share a relationship of some kind.

So how do you set proper expectations? Here’s how a great mentor once taught me a simple yet very powerful method:

1) Set expectations up front
2) Expectations must be mutually defined and agreed upon
3) If possible, write them down

1. Set expectations up front

Once you’ve let the cat out of the bag, it’s a pretty painful process to get him back in there. Same thing applies with expectations. While my memory isn’t ironclad, I can still remember first impressions, first expectations, first thoughts and feelings of a particular experience or project. Those can certainly change over time, but it typically requires a lot more work to do so. The same generally applies with your customer. Once they have an idea in their head, good luck convincing them to let it go.

You may already be setting expectations with customers and not realize it. How? Your website, your social media sites, your posts and tweets. Be mindful of what you’re “promising” or offering to customers through your various media and properties. Prices, deadlines, guarantees, services all better be 100% realistic or your customers will insist you do it, call you on it if those change, and may even it hold it against you if it doesn’t all add up in the end.

What few companies realize is that this is your “golden” opportunity to help shape the behavior of your customers. If you want your customers to complete a form, submit documents, understand your process, etc, its up to you to set that up in the beginning. It takes a little more focus and deliberate action on your part, but it will pay dividends, big time, now and down the road.

WORD OF CAUTION: If you’re in sales, you’re a big part of setting a customer’s expectations. You’re typically at the front of the process, so whatever you promise, agree to, and reinforce will be etched into the relationship from this point forward. I’m not just talking about price either. The old saying of “under promise, over deliver” is really saying don’t set expectations you can’t meet, deadlines that aren’t realistic or results that can’t be reached. Don’t set the rest of your team up for failure because you did or said “anything” just to get the sale.

2. Expectations should be mutually defined and agreed upon

“What do you want?” “I don’t know, what do you want?” Sound familiar? So here’s a tip. Unless you want a customer asking for the moon, or a 45 minute monologue of the history of their company… don’t ask “what do you want?”. Trust me, there are better ways to define expectations. Here are the 2 best questions I’ve ever heard that help people narrow down their answers to something that makes sense:

What is your best case scenario (for this project, product, experience, etc)?

Ok. Now tell me, what’s your worst case scenario?

Simple, yet incredibly effective. Why? Well, most people can articulate their best case scenario. They really can. It’s also true that most people can tell you their worst case scenario too. What I find fascinating is that often times a customer’s worst case scenario is far better than what I was imagining. But this is good. These two questions help you define the parameters, or the borders of your relationship and possible expectations. Now you can narrow it down even further with this follow up question.

So if this is your best case, and your worst case, would this (say for example ⅔ of the way to best case) be considered success to you?

If your customer answers yes? Bravo! You’ve just set the expectation of what success or victory looks like. If not, offer another possible example as success, or ask them what they consider success.

Here’s why I absolutely love this technique. First, since you’re asking the questions, you’re in control of the conversation. Second, it’s very non-threatening. It’s a comfortable discussion with no wrong answers. Third, it’s mutual. Both parties are involved in defining what the expectations should be. Fourth, it makes you seem very smart, even though it’s incredibly easy to do!

Now that you’ve defined what the expectations for success are, make sure you both agree upon them. I would recommend saying something like, “so we just decided that this (example) means success. Do you agree? Does that work for you?”. The mutual agreement is critical and here’s why. So you can hold each other accountable. If you don’t mutually agree then it’s one party imposing their expectations upon the other, and that rarely works out as intended or in a truly positive way.

3. When possible, write it down!

You’re doing great so far. You’ve set expectations at the right time – up front. You’ve had a great conversation with your customer and mutually defined and agreed what success means. Now you’ve got to write it down. Why? Humans are emotional beings, and to be honest, they change their expectations all the time. What made sense then, seems crazy now. It could be they had a bad breakfast, or got yelled at by the garbage man… who knows. But all those external elements, stresses, and situations can internally affect emotions… and expectations. Throw in the fact that people interpret body language, word meanings, and expressions differently (not to mention may have a faulty memory like mine) and you can see why setting expectations can be tricky if you don’t write it down.

It could be your regular contract with addendums, but it could also be just an email reaffirming what was discussed. But here’s why this step is really important too: What happens when one or both parties don’t meet or exceed the agreed expectations? If it hasn’t been set up front, mutually defined and agreed, and written down – it’s hard to hold either party accountable. But by writing it down and sharing it with the other party, you now know how short, close, or beyond success you’ve achieved. And you know exactly where they stand too!

Ok. So what happens if the expectations don’t work, or need to be adjusted or changed? What happens if one of the parties isn’t happy with the expectations once you get down the road? Don’t worry… it happens… it’s life and things can, and often do, go sideways.

Don’t panic. All you need to do to reset expectations is follow the same process. It will work again. I do, however, like to start by asking, “What changed? What changed to make you unhappy with the previous expectations?” This may give you insights into the other party’s concerns and provide some guidance when resetting, redefining and agreeing to a new set of expectations.

Conclusion. So there you have it. I challenge you to give it a try. It can be anything from a small task to a major project. I’ve had tremendous success for years using this method and technique. Setting expectations is such a critical part of business and personal relationships. Without doing so, it can lead to miscommunication, frustration, and poor results. But, by following the steps of setting expectations up front, mutually defining and agreeing upon them, and writing them down – not only will you know what you have to do to achieve success for your customer, they’ll know it when you claim victory and be right there with you!

+Chris Salisbury
Senior Creative Director
Ydraw

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