Great expectations

Jun 16 2006 by Andy Hanselman Print This Article

I can't believe it… I nearly missed the train today……. because it was on time!

I shouldn't really have been surprised, having spent more and more time travelling to London on GNER in recent months, it's quite clear that they've got their act together. From my house in Yorkshire to London Kings Cross in just over an hour and a half… and in my experience recently, it's always on time (sometimes early!).

GNER is a great example of a business that has built trust with its customers, well, with me at least. They've become my number one choice.

It got me thinking. In the past, my expectations of train travel have always been pretty low – to be fair, their lateness and poor time keeping was second only to mine, often meaning I'd catch a train I was running late for. I'd get on a train expecting it to be late, unclean and crowded. A nice seat, timely arrival and the bonus of friendly staff meant I disembarked 'delighted!'

What if the customer's expectations were low in the first place ?

This puts into question the whole concept of measuring our performance solely in terms of customer expectations. I've always pushed the concept of 'delighting' customers by exceeding their expectations, but what if their expectations were low in the first place?

Feedback from a participant on a recent event, carried out with a large Government department I'm working with highlighted the problem.

He told us we'd "exceeded his expectations", which was great. But pushed on why, he explained: "because all the events I've attended previously have been crap!"

So potentially, all we did is manage to be 'less crap' than everyone else. Hardly a resounding endorsement is it - although to be fair, further questioning did indicate that he would definitely recommend the training to his colleagues.

Of course, exceeding customer expectations is a goal for all of us, but we need to put this in perspective. It's important to look at 'Experience' versus 'Expectations'.

For example, is 'exceeding the expectations' of a customer with a low or no expectations better than 'meeting the expectations' of someone who has incredibly high standards?

What about the customer who has high expectations of you because of previous experiences, and indicates you 'met' rather than 'exceeded' expectations? The implication is you did a great job – up to your normal excellent standards, surely you've got to be happy with that?

Who is more likely to buy again – the very happy existing customer, the 'pleasantly surprised' new customer, or the reluctant 'you're a bit better than the others' customer?

I don't know the answer - I'm not sure there is one - but it should get you thinking.

The model here [click to pop-up a larger version!] might help add to the debate and could be useful in relating this to your business.

Here are some examples in 'my world'.

I'm 'Devoted' to Purple Circle, a consistently innovative design business in Nottingham – I'd never go anywhere else for my branding and design work; GNER, a pleasant, fast and reliable service – my first (only) choice for rail travel to London; Amazon - consistently delivers; Psyche, the 'Uber' boutique in Middlesborough; Sky Plus, it's changed my life!; First Direct, a call centre that's a pleasure to ring, and Easyjet – reliable, friendly and great value.

I'm 'Disaffected' with…. most motorway service stations; The vast majority of electrical retailers – in particular Dixons, The Link and PC World!; Midland Mainline – The Sheffield to London train service – slow… very slow. As a result, I do my utmost to avoid them.

Which box do your customers (or at least your key customers) belong in? Clearly the goal is 'Devoted Fans'. This means delivering a consistently excellent customer experience and building real loyalty from customers who expect the best. Creating this bond with customers means competitors have little or no chance of supplanting you.

This means that simply measuring customer satisfaction, although a useful indicator of performance, is unlikely to be enough. In fact, one of the world's leading gurus on customer loyalty, Frederick Reicheld argues it definitely is not. "86 per cent of defectors express satisfaction with their previous suppliers" he suggests.

Instead, he advocates measuring loyalty and his research concludes that using "How likely is it you would you recommend us to a friend?" is the strongest predictor of increased growth and profits.

I personally like the question, "Were you COMPLETELY happy with our products/services?" because customers must make a proactive choice when it comes to answering positively.

Traditional ratings, on the other hand, can be a 'cop out'. For example, rating you 7 out of 10 isn't bad is it? It looks good, but do you really want to be 'not too bad'? Rather than ratings out of 10, COMPLETELY happy can only be answered YES or NO. A tough question, I agree, but you want to be the best - don't you?

Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi and Saatchi, in his book 'Lovemarks, The Future Beyond Brands', suggests we need to 'Create Loyalty Beyond Reason'.

I believe that means building an emotional attachment to you, and your business, delivering a consistently wonderful experience and creating 'devoted fans' – people with high expectations who not only buy from you again and again, but tell others about you too. Just like I've done with GNER!

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About The Author

Andy Hanselman
Andy Hanselman

Andy Hanselman helps businesses and their people think in 3D. That means being Dramatically and Demonstrably Different. An expert on business competitiveness, he has spent well over 20 years researching, working with, and learning from, successful fast growth businesses. His latest book, The 7 Characteristics of 3D Businesses, reveals how businesses can get ahead, and stay ahead of their competitors.

Older Comments

Being aware of performance relative to expectations is important. However, understanding dimensions such as the current and future financial value of a customer is also vital, as it allows you to focus on those customers that have the most effect on your business. The impact of massively exceeding expectations for low value current and potential customers also needs to be considered, as well as how much influence word of mouth actually has on an industry, segment or individual customer. While this may be difficult to measure, an organisation has to think seriously before allowing any section of its customer base to reach a point where they actively discourage purchase of that brand / service. It’s an interesting trade off! This article initially caught my eye as my organisation (Satmetrix) worked closely with Fred Reichheld and Bain & Co to co-develop the Net Promoter Score (NPS), the metric you discussed above. We would suggest though that it is not simply the use of a metric or one question which helps a company understand how its customers feel about doing business with it, it is how an organisation uses the answers as part of a process to address poor customer experience. We’ve seen fantastic results amongst companies we work with who have transformed both their processes and the way they communicate with customers through a deeper and broader understanding of their Net Promoter Scores. It also comes down to what the key drivers for customer loyalty are. The fact is, not all transactions or touch points are the same - some you can make a mistake with â€' while others are critical. We think it’s all about organisations understanding these drivers, then laser-focus on managing the performance of the critical touch points. A good resource for furthering this discussion would be This is an online community which has been developed specifically to address the issues around customer experience management and loyalty, and makes recommendations as to how to further business growth by becoming truly customer centric, through actual industry discussions. There are also discussion threads with Fred Reichheld and primary research into the Net Promoter Scores of leading companies in a number of industries. Martin Green, managing director, Satmetrix, EMEA.

Martin Green, managing director, Satmetrix, EMEA