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The Myth of Exceeding Customer Expectations

By: Paul McCord

Paul McCord is a internationally recognized sales trainer and management consultant. His first book, Creating a Million Dollar a Year Sales Income: Sales Success through Client Referrals (John Wiley and Sons, 2007), and SuperStar Selling: 12 Keys to Becoming a Sales SuperStar will be released in February, 2008. He may be reached at pmccord@mccordandassociates.com or visit his website at www.mccordandassociates.com


The business world is filled with myths, some of which have become guiding principles for many businesses. One of the most nefarious of these myths is currently all the rage: exceeding the customer's expectations.

Numerous books have been written explaining the glories of exceeding the customer's expectations. These authors give shining examples of the concept in practice and then explain in great detail how you can implement the same concepts in your own business.

And thousands of companies eagerly eat the information up and institute the recommendations and proudly proclaim to the public that they too exceed customer expectations.

What a crock.

What both the authors writing the books and the companies following their advice fail to understand is that is impossible for a company to exceed customer expectations. It simply cannot be done the way it is taught. In fact, for a company consisting of more than just a few employees, it is a virtual impossibility.

The Concept Is All Wrong
The fundamental problem with the concept as practiced is that you cannot exceed someone's expectations if you don't know what those expectations are. Companies frankly have no idea what their client's expectations are.

This is not to say that companies don't try to find out. They most certainly do. Many companies do customer survey's to help them determine what their customers expect. Others examine their sales and customer service departments and make modifications based on what they anticipate customers want and expect.

Neither of these processes can actually help a company exceed customer expectations. The surveys may give the company some great customer service and sales feedback, but it cannot put the company in a position to exceed actual customer expectations. And, certainly, analyzing the sales and customer service functions cannot do so either.

In both of these cases, the most the company can do is develop policies and procedures that if fully met can help them exceed what the company believes their customer's expectations should be, not what they really are.

Since every customer is different and has a different set of expectations, the only way for a company to actually exceed a particular customer's expectations is to ask the customer what they expect and then meet or exceed that individual customer's specific expectations. Virtually no company does this. “Exceeding the customer's expectations” is nothing more than a great sounding slogan that means the company thinks is has great customer service.

To maintain efficiency and be cost effective, companies must have standard processes and procedures. Catering to the unique needs and wants of hundreds or thousands of customers for most companies is unrealistic and unattainable. Trying to develop a team of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of employees all flexible enough to make each individual's purchasing experience truly unique according to that individual's expectations simply isn't realistic.

At most, companies with a work force of more than a few employees can only institute excellent sales and customer service processes that result in a satisfactory or possibly more than satisfactory experience for the customer. Although superior to their competition, this experience is still far from exceeding each individual customer's expectations.

This is, in fact, what the writers of the books on exceeding customer expectations mean—the customer walks away happy. Boiled down to its essence, that's the definition of exceeding a customer's expectations—you didn't irritate the customer and maybe even went beyond what the competition does.

It Can Be Done
However, it is possible to actually meet and even exceed each individual customer's expectations. It isn't easy, but it is an attainable goal.

Nevertheless, it isn't possible for the “company” to exceed expectations. The only individual capable of performing the task is the primary contact the customer has to the company--the salesperson. However, in order for the salesperson to accomplish this successfully, he or she must be empowered by the company with the necessary tools and authority. The larger the company, the more difficult this becomes.

To be able to accomplish this goal requires the salesperson:

Ask: Again, you cannot exceed someone's expectations if you don't know what they are. Unless the salesperson specifically asks the customer what they expect and want to happen during the sale, they will never know. They will be in the same position as the company that guesses or tries to exceed the expectations of a theoretical “average” customer.

Asking is a more difficult task than one might think. It is a foreign concept for most salespeople and customers alike.

Salespeople will typically feel awkward and foolish asking, at least at first. They, like the company, assume they know what the customer wants and asking seems to be waste of time. Not until they have experienced the variety of expectations that different customers have will they appreciate the need for the question.

Customers are surprised and confused by the question as more than likely they have never been asked this question or one like it by anyone. The question is so unexpected they are taken aback and many have no idea how to respond. The salesperson may have to ask a couple of questions to get the customer on track. Questions such as:

  • “how often would you like me to keep you informed of the progress of the sale”

  • “how would you prefer I contact you”

  •  “if I need to get hold of you on short notice and you are not available, is there an alternative individual I may speak with” 

  • “are you going to need any additional assistance from us when we deliver” 

  • “what are your expectations during installation?”

will get the customer thinking about what it is they want to happen. At times, a more specific question such as “what are the most important things you want to happen during the sale” is called for.

Usually, once the customer understands that they are being asked exactly what they want to happen, that is, that they get to help structure the sales process, they will open up. At that point, there is no telling what expectations they might reveal.

If the salesperson has done a thorough job in discovering the client's expectations and wants, they know exactly what they must do in order to give the customer the purchasing experience the customer wants.

This discussion of the customer's expectations also allows the salesperson to address any unrealistic expectations the customer may have. Far better to find out about any unrealistic expectations and deal with them upfront rather than to discover them after they have become an issue for the client. Often, if an unrealistic expectation is uncovered it can be disarmed and a satisfactory alternative can be agreed upon. If, however, it isn't uncovered until it has festered into a problem, explaining that it was an unrealistic expectation won't work. The damage has already been done.

Have Reasonable Authority: Each salesperson must have the authority, within reasonable limits, to make sure the customer's expectations are met. This, unfortunately, is where it gets difficult for larger companies. Not only are larger companies reluctant to give salespeople the authority to make things happen, the company's processes and procedures are so inflexible that it is almost impossible for any customization to take place.

Yet, the inflexibility of the large company and their reluctance to delegate authority opens tremendous doors for smaller companies who do have the flexibility and are willing to empower their salespeople to make the changes to the process that will ensure their customers do have a one of a kind buying experience.

As mentioned above, not every expectation by a customer can be met by even the most agile of companies. Nevertheless, the more flexible and accommodating the company can be and the more authority it can give to salespeople to work with customers, the more impressive the impact the company's service will have on the customer. In many cases, if the salesperson knows what the client's expectations really are and can truly exceed them, price becomes a non-issue, as does competition.

Management Support: It isn't unusual for a manager or company to empower salespeople to make customer oriented decisions and then once the salesperson exercises that authority, come behind him or her and undermine their authority by reversing or revising the salesperson's decision.

In order for a salesperson to be able to exceed their customer's expectations, they must have a clear understanding of the breadth and depth of their decision making authority and then once exercised, that authority must be upheld by management.

In addition, if the salesperson exceeds their authority with a particular customer, the company must do everything possible to stand behind the salesperson's commitment to the client. Discipline and reprimands may come afterwards, but the client's expectations, if confirmed by the salesperson, should be honored.

At one time, the myth of exceeding the customer's expectations was powerful. Today, as more and more companies claim to give more than the client expects—and as customers are learning not to expect too much from the companies that make the claim--the myth is losing its luster.

Yet, the companies willing to step out and institute the changes necessary to turn the myth into reality are finding themselves without competition, with enormous word-of-mouth advertising, and are able to maintain their pricing structure in the face of ever declining prices from competitors.

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© Copyright 2007, Paul McCord

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