The Best Time to Manage Customer Expectations

We've all seen a customer blow up at an unpleasant surprise.

Many of those situations come down to expectations. The customer expected one thing to happen and something far worse happened instead.

You might know that you can often prevent the customer's anger by effectively managing expectations. The key is to prepare the customer for the worst-case scenario ahead of time using carefully selected language

If only it was that easy!

This post examines the importance of timing when managing customer expectations. Let's start with a common situation where customers get upset—air travel.

Photo credit: Jason O'Halloran

Photo credit: Jason O'Halloran

Airlines Struggle with Expectations

There's a lot of reasons why airline passengers are grumpy

The boarding process is one of them. Passengers swarm the boarding gate and block access while other people try to squeeze past and board. Frazzled gate agents try to keep up with a barrage of requests.

A passenger inevitably tries to board with three large bags, despite the policy that you only get to bring one personal item (which must go under your seat) and one carry-on that fits in the overhead bin.

Handling this situation is a huge challenge for gate agents.

Most shirk the responsibility and leave it up to the flight attendants to sort out. They'll say they're too busy or they just want to avoid the inevitable blow-up.

Some try to address it as passengers board, which inevitably causes the passenger with three bags to fly off the handle.

They'll say:

"They let me bring my bags on the last flight!" 

Or, 

"The other airline doesn't have a problem with my bags!" 

Or, 

"Then how come I saw three other people board with even more bags than me?!"

It's a tough situation. Most gate agents make it worse with poor timing.

 

How Bad Timing Ruins Expectation Management

Passengers boarding an airplane typically face high anxiety.

They get caught up in the herd mentality and start squeezing in, even if their boarding group won't board for another five minutes. Many passengers are anxious about flying in general, so this only makes it worse.

Research shows we're less open to suggestion when our emotions are running high. That's why trying to manage expectations at the moment a passenger is boarding the plane usually backfires.

Think about situations where you have to manage customer expectations. If their emotions are spiking, it's probably difficult.

Here are some more examples:

  • A hotel guest learns about a $20/night resort fee at check-out.
  • An online shopper learns an item she ordered is out of stock after she places the order.
  • A customer spends an hour in a furniture store picking out the right fabric for a new sofa, only to learn the store's eight week delivery time is too late for his needs.

All of these messages would be better received if they were delivered when the customer wasn't experiencing an emotional peak.

 

Deliver News Before the Emotional Peak

The best time to manage expectations is when emotions are relatively neutral.

This requires proactive service, where you anticipate a challenge before it happens. The specific technique is called The Pre-Emptive Acknowledgement, which is one of my all-time favorites.

For example, the general manager of one of my favorite inns called me a week before my trip to let me know my favorite room wasn't going to be available. (You can read about her master class in expectation management.) It worked out in part because her call came before the emotional peak of checking in after a long day of travel.

What should airline gate agents do?

Gate agents are much more successful when they speak to individual passengers just before the boarding process starts. This allows agents to connect with people one-on-one before emotions start running high. Passengers are much more open to checking their extra bags in this situation.

How can you make timing work for you? Think about how you can better manage expectations with your customers by addressing issues before the emotional peak. 

Here's a short video clip that provides another example. (If you can't see the video on your screen, or the size doesn't look right, you can use this link.)

The clip from my training video, The Manager's Guide to Managing Customer Expectations. You'll need a Lynda.com subscription to view the full course, but you can drop my name get a 10-day trial.