High Flying Customer Expectations

[From my post on Salesforce.com blog]

imagesI had an experience with one of those in-flight Wi-Fi services a couple of weeks ago that got me thinking of the concept of meeting customer expectations versus exceeding them. And, is continually exceeding customer expectations sustainable?

I’ve been in the thick of enough Twitter chats, hangouts and customer experience think-tank kind of events to realize that the popular rhetoric is to stand on the desktop and revolt against any notion that contradicts exceeding customer expectations by a long shot; knocking their socks off; giving them x times the value they were actually seeking; and so on.

And, in fact, a friend of mine Stan Phelps has spent the better part of the past several years documenting little surprise acts of customer delight through his work at the Purple Goldfish Project. The stories of lagniappe he tells are truly special. Check them out.

Unintentional Customer Delight

But what happens when a customer is delighted in such a way that was unintentional? When a product or service was rendered that was the result of some error or an unsustainable process?

This is what happened to me with the Wi-Fi service. I’d used the service several times. And I was able to do pretty much whatever I wanted online, including stream Netflix to catch up on my obsession – The Walking Dead. This last time though, all that changed.

I proceeded with my online session like the times before. But this time, the service was poor. It was very slow. And several minutes into my session, the browser on my iPad froze. And, if you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, having your stream freeze in mid zombie attack stinks worse than the rotting flesh of those pesky walkers.

I logged off and back on and engaged in a customer service chat session where the agent, politely enough, noted that how I was using the service was not advisable. And, these activities, like streaming shows or YouTube, would cause the precise problems I was experiencing. It’s all right there on the login page, you know. Like I read that.

Ok, fine. But I was able to do all these things on my last trip, I explained. In response to which, I was told essentially that I got lucky. It was an anomaly. Unintentional. Unexpected.

Well, the problem is that this was now my expectation going in. I expected this level of service. This experience. Intentional or not. Sustainable or not. This was the bar that had been set. Now that was being taken away.

Now I get the fact that sometimes crazy errors happen. Like when your bank credits your checking account with a few million that isn’t yours. In those circumstances, it’s a reasonable person that would not expect to benefit from such an glitch. But, when the error is within the realm of reality but unsustainable, when it creates an expectation that a reasonable person would believe to be probable, and then is taken away, what then?

Managing vs Exceeding Customer Expectations

Here’s the thing about expectations. Human nature dictates that the more you provide, the more is generally expected. Forget about the erroneous benefits like I had in-flight. Are companies in fact training customers to expect more and more for the same or lower price? Is this a sustainable business model? In fact, is this a sustainable foundation for any relationship?

So, what’s the right answer? Continue to deliver experiences that are unexpected? Or, manage expectations? Under promise and over deliver? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.