Let me say it here once and for all:
You do not have to exceed customer expectations to deliver great service.
Do surprise and delight matter? Sure.
Do WOW moments make an impact? Of course.
Do we all love stories about incredible customer service? Heck yeah!
But they are the cherry on top; they are not the cake.
I was thrilled to receive my colleague Adrian Swinscoe’s book recently. As I was digging into the fantastic How to Wow: 68 Effortless Ways to Make Every Customer Experience Amazing, I came across the chapter Make Promises, Keep Them but You Don’t Have to Beat Them.
In that chapter, Adrian discusses the importance of meeting, not exceeding, expectations and includes an interesting quote from a 2014 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science:
“Breaking one’s promise is costly, but exceeding it does not appear worth the effort.”
This laboratory study makes the case that there is little incremental benefit in exceeding promises; however, this finding should be taken not as a hard and fast rule but as a general concept that can differ with circumstances.
Brand promises are often not as clear as direct promises from individuals, meaning the line for meeting or exceeding them can be highly individualized. Also, when exceeding expectations incorporates emotional resonance or surprise (which lights up the pleasure centers of the brain), it has the potential to have a more profound impact on the customer.
So while we should not discount the power of surprise and delight completely, neither should we buy into the idea that it is a wise goal for our organizations.
Let us look at Adrian’s larger point about the ineffectiveness of exceeding expectations as a customer service strategy.
Because I couldn’t agree more.
When I first saw the title of that chapter in Adrian’s book, I immediately thought back to my own customer service book, Be Your Customer’s Hero. At the end of the book, I break down the characteristics of a heroic service approach as follows:
You need only three elements to create a Hero-Class® customer experience and to keep customers loyal:
1. Meet and, whenever possible, exceed expectations.
2. Provide a hassle-free, frictionless experience.
3. Do both of the above consistently.
What struck me even further was that in this same chapter in HERO, I also mentioned my colleagues Shep Hyken and Steve Curtin:
In his book The Amazement Revolution, Shep says Amazement is “Service that is consistently and predictably better than average. Amazement is not necessarily about ‘Wow!’ levels of service, although sometimes it may be. It is about an all-of-the-time, I-know-I-can-count-on-it, better-than-average experience.”
Steve says it similarly in his book Delight Your Customers: “This book is not about how to ‘WOW!’ customers by continually surpassing their expectations and exceeding their needs — which is unsustainable. . . . In everyday service situations, most customers simply want to be acknowledged and appreciated.”
When I was writing Be Your Customer’s Hero, I was concerned that the title might be too lofty, that people might take away just the headline and not the context — to focus their customer service programs on the cherry not the cake.
I think all too often in this fast headline, quick skim world, the message between the covers gets lost.
Just look at the book titles and quotes mentioned above when placed side-by-side to see how the fine points can be missed if you don’t look deeper:
Whether you desire to delight or WOW, to amaze or be the hero, remember that achieving these aspirational service goals begins with basic executional principles.
Spectacular service is often the result of ordinary actions consistently delivered.
Exceeding customer expectations should never be the primary goal of your experience design.
Instead, begin with understanding expectations, meeting them consistently, and not hassling your customers. If you can, you’ll have baked a pretty good customer experience cake.
After that, feel free to throw the cherry on top; it’s a nice surprise.
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