"If you say that to a customer, you're lying."
I'll never forget that advice. It came from the manager at the clothing store where I worked as a teenager. She was explaining how to set appropriate expectations.
We'd frequently get calls from customers asking if we had a particular item or size in stock. Customers wanted to save themselves an unnecessary trip if we didn't have what they were looking for. (This was back before the days when you could go online and look it up.)
The process was we'd walk the sales floor to physically locate the item. If we had it, we could hold it for the customer so it was waiting for them when they came in. It usually took us several minutes to find what the customer wanted.
Our store manager was coaching the team on how to put a customer on hold. Many of us had a habit of saying, "I'm going to put you on hold for just a minute while I see if we have that item in stock."
Of course, "just a minute" really meant a few minutes. Customers could reasonably believe we literally meant one minute and be slightly annoyed when it took longer than that.
The lesson the store manager shared was that we can help customers avoid unpleasant surprises by being careful about the language we use.
Problem 1: Customers Are Too Optimistic
Two problems can occur if we don't use clear language to manage customer expectations. Both can easily result in a service failure.
The first problem is customers have selective hearing. They tend to be overly optimistic about the service we promise them.
Here are two examples:
If you say, "Your order will arrive in two to four days," a customer will hear, "Your order will arrive in two days."
Or, if you say, "I'm going to put you on hold for just a minute," a customer will hear, "The maximum time you will be on hold is one minute."
Problem 2: We're Too Eager to Please
The other problem occurs when we're too eager to please our customers. We inadvertently set the scene for a future service failure by trying to make our customer feel better right now.
You've probably heard the phrase, "Under promise and over deliver." This is just the opposite.
A two to four day delivery time sounds too long, so we emphasize that it often takes just two days. This makes the customer feel good in the moment, because two days is acceptable. It also sets the stage for an unpleasant surprise if it takes longer than that.
How Clear Language Can Help
You can avoid these problems by using clear language to get your customer to agree to the worst case scenario. Most of the time, customers are perfectly fine with this.
Here's an example:
Instead of saying, "Your order will take two to four days to arrive," say, "Your order will take up to four days to arrive."
This way, your customer won't be upset if the order takes four days. And, they'll be pleasantly surprised if it takes just two or three days to get there.
Of course, if four days is too long, you can always discuss options such as express shipping to get the order there faster.
Don't say, "I'll get back to you right away." Instead, give your customer a specific time that has a little built-in wiggle room in case it takes you longer than anticipated. You might say, "I'll need to do some research on that issue. Will it be okay if I get back to you by 4pm today?"
You can learn more from my new course on Lynda.com, How to Manage Customer Expectations for Frontline Employees. You'll need a Lynda.com account to view the entire course, but you can get a free 10-day trial here.
Here's a short introductory video that explains what the course is all about.