How Demanding Extras Can Undermine Service Quality

It's interesting to read other people's customer service stories.

There's often a valuable lesson involved. But, I'm also fascinated by how these stories are written. They typically follow a three step logic process:

  1. The author is a perfectly normal, reasonable customer.
  2. Company X does something astonishingly bad.
  3. Don't be like Company X.

It's the first point, "The author is a perfectly normal, reasonable customer" where many of these stories go off the rails. 

Unreasonable Customers

Here's an example from a well-respected author. She detailed a service failure where she was dining with her husband and had ordered a glass of wine with her meal. The author explained that she drank all the wine before finishing her meal, so she asked her server for a little more.

The author expected the wine to be free. 

She was incredulous that the server wanted to charge her for an additional glass of wine, even though she didn't want a full glass. 

The point of her story was about empowering employees to assess the situation and provide extras when warranted. It's a good point.

But, the author also did what many customers do. She undermined her own service experience by demanding something extra and then getting upset when she didn't receive it.

She hurt her credibility by writing about it as if her server was clearly in the wrong.

 

What Should Customers Reasonably Expect?

A customer's perception of service quality is a function of how the experience matched the customer's expectations. On a basic level:

  • Good service is when the customer's expectations are met.
  • Outstanding service is when the customer's expectations are exceeded.
  • Poor service is when the experience falls short of the customer's expectations.

This makes expectations crucial to customer service. A customer with unreasonable expectations is much more likely to receive what she perceives as poor service.

So, what's reasonable?

On a broad level, customers can reasonably expect to receive the products and services that a company promises to provide. 

It gets trickier when a customer wants something that's not explicitly promised.

Let's use the author's restaurant example. The restaurant sold wine by the glass. If a guest orders a glass of wine, it's reasonable that she would expect to receive a glass of that wine at the price listed on the menu.

It would also be reasonable to say that if there was something wrong with the wine, the customer could immediately send it back for a replacement without being charged.

But, what about asking for more than a glass of wine but less than two glasses?

The author made it clear she would be willing to pay for a second glass of wine if she had wanted that much. But, she wanted less than that so she expected it to be free. She requested what essentially amounted to a free sample or a bonus portion.

Some restaurants actually address this directly. A typical glass of wine contains five to six ounces while a taste of wine (like you'd get when visiting a winery) is usually about two ounces. So, a few restaurants have glass and taste prices for wines on their menu. (This restaurant apparently didn't have this option on the menu.)

I don't fault her for asking. But, I think the author was wrong to be upset when she wanted something that the restaurant never promised her.

 

Where Do Expectations Come From?

Just as the author was being unreasonable to demand free wine, it would be unreasonable to expect all customers to be reasonable!

So, it's helpful to understand how customers develop their expectations so we can help them avoid these types of situations.

Customers generally develop their expectations from four primary sources:

  1. Our communication to the customer
  2. The customer's past experience with us
  3. Word-of-mouth from others (includes online reviews)
  4. Experience doing business with other companies

Let's go back to the wine example. Can you think of ways that any of these expectation sources might have influenced the customer to expect a free taste of wine?

Two jump out to me:

The first is number two, the customer's past experience. Many restaurants are perfectly willing to give you a free taste of wine before you order a glass. It's a way to allow customers to try a wine before they buy it. 

If the restaurant had done this with the author, it would make more sense for her to expect a free taste. 

The second expectation source that may have influenced the author is number four. Perhaps she had gotten free tastes before buying a glass of wine at other restaurants. Or, she may have recently dined at a restaurant that had pricing on the menu for two ounce pours. 

Again, her expectations would be more understandable if she had had one of those experiences.

 

Resources

Dealing with unreasonable customers is a big challenge for customer service professionals. Here are a couple of resources to help you navigate through these situations.

One is Adam Toporek's book, Be Your Customer's Hero. It was written to provide practical advice directly to frontline employees. Chapter 59 focuses on this issue direction, "Focus on what you can do, not what you can't."

There are also two training videos on Lynda.com. 

The first is How to Manage Customer Expectations for Frontline Employees. It focuses on effective communication techniques for situations like the one where the author demanded free wine.

The second is The Manager's Guide to Managing Customer Expectations. This video addresses the issue from a manager's perspective by providing tips for preventing situations where customer expectations go unmet.

You'll need a Lynda.com account to view the full videos, but you can get access with a 10-day trial.