The Myth of Exceeding Customer Expectations [Where to Focus Instead]

Instead of exceeding customer expectations, deliver a consistent experience that meets expectations, and "make it easy."

The Meetingnotes Team
Last update:
March 6, 2024
Customer Success

Chances are, you (or someone you know) were let down by the final season of Game of Thrones. After a seven-season love affair, the romance unraveled. And a mob of fans turned from swooning to spiteful.

Yet were it not for an enchanting seven seasons, there would’ve been no letdown. There’d be no expectations to “let down.” 

That doesn’t mean the writers erred by setting high expectations with their previous work. What were they supposed to do, write a bad show? 

Fortunately, sales reps, marketing professionals, service agents, and customer success teams aren’t so boxed in. Unlike Hollywood writers, these professionals have much greater control over customer expectations.

At least in theory.

In reality, most organizations don’t understand customer expectations to begin with, don’t manage them well, or both. But before we get to understanding and managing expectations, a bit of myth-busting is in order.

The myth of exceeded customer expectations

The conventional wisdom that your business needs to always be delighting its customers is wrong. 

With regard to the customer experience, consumers are far more likely to punish lousy service than reward delightful service. Based on a customer satisfaction study of more than 75,000 customers who had interacted with contact center reps over the phone, the web, chat, and email: 

Loyalty has a lot more to do with how well companies deliver on their basic, even plain-vanilla promises than on how dazzling the service experience might be.

Senior Principal at Gartner Advisory, Andrew Schumacher, agrees: “Exceeding customer expectations provides, at best, a marginal lift to customer loyalty. Our research finds that to win customer loyalty, customer service and support leaders must focus on consistently meeting customer expectations.”

That’s not to say exceeding customer expectations doesn’t make customers more loyal. It does. But everything has a cost. And the price of exceeding expectations is often not worth the return, especially if that cost takes away the resources needed to meet customer expectations.

So our point isn’t that you should abandon efforts to exceed customer expectations. But you should reject an approach that’s overly focused on reaching a mythical state of customer nirvana no matter the cost.

When conducting business, it’s better to simply provide a consistent experience of positive interactions that meet your customer’s needs.

How to manage, meet and (sometimes) exceed basic customer expectations

When it comes to managing a customer’s expectations, you have to walk before you can run.

In one survey, just 10% of consumers said brands meet their expectations of a good experience. Yet 82% of marketers surveyed believed their brands were meeting expectations. 

There’s a lot of organizations that either don’t know their customers’ expectations well enough. Or, they’re not doing an excellent job of managing those expectations. In either case, the steps below will help your team ensure you’re delivering on expectations in a sustainable, repeatable way.

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Identify customer expectations 

Industry surveys and previous experience can give you a starting point to identify customer expectations, but ultimately, you need to go to the source. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up to provide some other company’s version of a great customer service experience. 

How you collect customer feedback will depend on what resources you have available and the nature of your customer relationships. Popular options include:

  • Conducting face-to-face interviews (remotely or in-person).
  • Scheduling a one-on-one phone interview.
  • Collecting feedback via live chat.
  • Sending out CSAT or NPS surveys via email.
  • Prompting customers with feedback forms after their checkout process.

Of course, if you have regular customer meetings, you can collect feedback without necessarily scheduling a formal interview. In that case, this customer meeting agenda may help you structure those customer conversations to make them as helpful as possible.

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Understand the context of new customer expectations

Research has shown that what customers expect upon using a service is influenced by their perception of the brand behind it and its ability to deliver on its promises. 

As simple as this sounds, it’s an important concept to internalize. New customers are not a blank slate. They will have formed expectations about your product or service well before engaging with you. These expectations may come from online reviews, your brand communications, word of mouth, or—more likely—all of the above. 

If you don’t understand the context in which new customers form their expectations, you’re missing critical information. So if you’re not familiar with this context, get familiar. 

Put yourself in your customers’ position and research your organization online. Talk to salespeople and your customer success and/or service teams. Chances are you’ll uncover insights that surveying customers alone won’t give you. 

And you’ll be much better prepared to influence customer expectations.

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Train your team on managing expectations

Here’s an illustrative example from an article in the Journal of Market Focused Management showing what happens when customer expectations aren’t properly managed:

“During a busy lunch hour, the wait at the drive-in window of a fast-food restaurant was irritating a lot of customers. The same wait was causing no unusual reaction among the walk-in customers. 

The difference is attributable to the assumption, inadvertently made by drive-in customers, that the drive-in service is designed for speed. The management needs to educate its customers about the true attribute of the drive-in service. It is designed for convenience, not speed.”

This example illustrates how customers often arrive with unrealistic expectations that aren’t productive (or profitable) to meet. In a perfect world, your brand messaging and PR would set expectations, so they lie flush with your service capabilities. 

But it’s not a perfect world, and every customer-facing team has to be skilled at expectation management as well. If not, they need to be trained up. 


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Hone your lead qualification and nurturing processes

One critical way you can more consistently meet and exceed your customers’ expectations is by attracting the right target audience in the first place. Lead scoring can be helpful here. As HubSpot explains, the lead scoring process “Helps sales and marketing teams prioritize leads, respond to them appropriately, and increase the rate at which those leads become customers.”

Some teams may create lead scores for multiple characteristics, such as customer fit and interest level. They can then segment those leads based on their scores. 

So, for example, let’s say a customer has a mediocre fitness lead score but a high-interest score. It may make sense to enroll that lead in an email nurture campaign aimed at improving that lead’s fitness score by realigning their expectations.

Lead scoring can also help by identifying those customers whose expectations simply aren’t a good fit for the company’s service or product.

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Measure and report your progress with OKRs

Karl Pearson famously said, “That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.” And this holds true for every customer-facing team. 

The good (and bad) news is there is an overwhelmingly wide selection of tools, frameworks, and metrics you can use to measure and report your progress. Some teams uses Objectives and Key Results to frame their goals, so if you’re not familiar, this post is worth a read: Objectives and Key Results (OKRs): What They Are and How to Use Them.

To exceed expectations, “Make it easy.”

Research by Matt Dixon, author and advisor on sales, service, and CX, and his colleagues have one key implication:  

When it comes to service, companies create loyal customers primarily by helping them solve their problems quickly and easily. 

Dixon’s research, he says, shows that the service challenge should be framed in terms of making it easy for the customer. In his experience, “Telling reps to exceed customers’ expectations is apt to yield confusion, wasted time and effort, and costly giveaways.” 

The “make it easy” framing is more concrete and straightforward than aiming to exceed expectations for all your customers. It encourages each team member to do one simple (but not always easy) thing: remove obstacles.

Obstacles may vary depending on the situation, but a few that stop you from meeting customer service expectations include:

  1. Having to contact a company for help or clarification multiple times.
  2. Being transferred to another department or representative to resolve a problem.
  3. Switching from one service channel to another.

Dixon also cites how proactive customer service is often overlooked in pursuit of solid first-contact-resolution (FCR) scores. He explains that “22% of repeat calls involve downstream issues related to the problem that prompted the original call.” And even if that original call is resolved quickly, the customer service experience is more time-consuming because the customer had to call back.

Dixon advocates that service teams must view excellent customer service more comprehensively as part of the obstacle-removing approach. 

Take a customer meeting toolkit for the road

For companies who meet, physically or remotely, with their customers regularly, those customer meetings are critical to the relationship. Not only that, if you run them well, you’ll uncover a trove of insights about your customers and how they’re using your products and/or services. 

But a well-run meeting requires structure and preparation. 

These posts and templates will help make it easy for you and your team to plan, prepare for, run, and learn from your customer meetings: 


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