7 Principles for Managing Customer Expectations

If you’ve ever visited a major fast food chain, then you might know what it’s like to have your expectations crash and burn.

The way they present their hamburgers – juicy patties topped with melted cheese, crisp lettuce and fresh tomatoes – could get just about anyone yearning for a bite. So you order yourself one at the counter and receive a neatly wrapped package.

And then you unwrap it.

What you actually get is a mediocre sandwich at best. The patties are pressed dry, the cheese looks more like rubber than something edible, the lettuce is wilted and you have to take off the top bun just to find the teeny tiny tomato.

The challenge with customer expectations is rooted in a dilemma. To win customers, you need to promise value ; to keep customers, you need to manage the expectations created by that promise.

Meet vs. exceed

A dart board.

This is the big debate in customer expectations. For years, we've witnessed a dominant ideology of “exceeding your customers’ expectations”. Its theory is that you reach customer satisfaction by exceeding their expectations.

As a result, many businesses put themselves under constant pressure to achieve unattainable, over-the-top perfection. If we give in to this kind of culture, the bar will just be set higher and higher and in the long run, no business will be able to meet –let alone exceed– any expectation.

Happiness is reality minus expectations.


Instead, we should be following the “ stop trying to delight your customers ” approach. If we’re trying to manage our customers’ expectations, the best way to do so is to meet them, not to exceed them.

How to manage customer expectations

Meeting expectations rather than exceeding them isn't an excuse to stop trying to satisfy your customers. It’s just a smarter way of managing these expectations in a way that’s good for your customers and your business.

You can’t meet everyone’s expectations, so you’ll have to be selective about your battlefields. Here are our tried and true principles that we’ve collected to help you manage your customer expectations.

Define and adhere to baseline expectations

There are some things that every business needs to adhere to, which are “baseline expectations.” These are mostly set by industry standards and even by laws or regulations. No matter how low-cost an airline is is, for example, losing a customer’s luggage is unacceptable. If you run a restaurant, it’s legally required to follow food safety guidelines.

Every online shop needs a secured payment system and a minimum set of contact options for support. For online businesses located in Germany, an imprint page is a legal requirement.

Technical aspects like a minimum loading speed are also considered a baseline requirement since its estimated up to 53% of visitors will leave if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load the page.

Create a strategic position to excel in

After making sure you’re meeting the baseline expectations, strategically positioning your business will help to narrow the focus. To define those areas you want to excel in and raise your customers’ expectations.

A winner's stage.

This means deliberately picking areas for overperformance and for underperformance. Amazon, for example, underperforms in web design. Their website isn't exactly polished. They’ve never bothered to follow design trends. But they overperform in usability and selection. Their website loads quickly and customers can find practically everything for an affordable price.

Asking yourself questions like, “Who am I targeting?” and “What do they care about?” will help you get closer to defining a strategic position for your business.

To define “who,” you can use a method like customer personas . When it comes down to choosing which strategy you’d like to adopt, you could use a framework like Porter’s Generic Strategies . It analyzes how businesses can situate themselves against their competitors. The three strategies are:

  • Cost leadership strategy: Focuses on offering low prices (e.g. Walmart).
  • Differentiation strategy: Focuses on a unique feature that sets your product/service apart from competitors (e.g. Apple).
  • Focus strategy: Focus on niche markets (in combination with cost leadership or differentiation) (e.g. Porsche).

These strategies can be generally applied to almost every area of business, product or service. Once you’ve defined your strategy, it’s then carried out through your business design, marketing and communication strategy, along with tracking and monitoring techniques.

Design your business accordingly

Whichever strategy you’ve chosen, you’ll need to deliver. Your business needs to be structured in a way that will help you achieve this.

A DNA string.

Amazon’s strategy is targeting high-choice with low-cost, with a focus on offering fast delivery. In order to meet these expectations, Amazon needs to have a huge reach, a top notch logistics system, and a strong bargaining position over its suppliers.

Many technical companies set their expectations for their customers in a pleasant user experience. To make sure their business design supports this, they may implement a tool like Userlane that helps guide a user through onboarding and increase engagement.

Communicate accordingly

The next step in carrying out your business strategy is sending the right messages to your customers. This is all about making sure that your customers perceive you how you want to be perceived.

When your website says you offer 24/7 customer support for your users, don't make this hollow words: make sure you can live up to that promise.

Iris De Geest, Survey Anyplace

How you market and communicate your business’s strong points will influence how your customers set their expectations of you. By emphasizing where you overachieve, you’re guiding your customers’ expectations to those areas. And since your business design has been set up to help you excel in your strategic areas, you’ll be able to successfully meet those expectations.

Seeing that Amazon’s strong points lie in selection and fast delivery, you can be sure that this is where they choose to create their advertisement campaigns, like in this commercial for their Prime service.

They’ve guided the expectations of their audience through their communication, and then they’ve made sure to manage them. Anyone who’s ordered through Prime knows that they will pull through.

The next time you’re thinking of how to communicate and market your business, consider that what you’re showing them has a great deal of influence on their expectations. When you communicate honestly, you won't let your customers down (I’m looking at you, fast food restaurants).

Monitor and highlight the right metrics

The areas that you choose to compete on should define your most important metrics . Whether it be fast delivery or providing top-notch customer support, you can track and monitor these areas to gauge how you’re doing.

A graph.

Say, like Amazon, one of your focuses is fast delivery. You could track delivery speed, or the number of late deliveries. When you have concrete numbers to go from, you can tell more objectively how effectively your business design is supporting your strategies or if it needs some readjusting.

A tool like Geckoboard can help you track these metrics and display them to your team members. By making these numbers known team-wide, everyone will have a better idea of what’s going on and what areas to focus on.

Favor transparency

Transparency isn't just a pillar of good communication . Being transparent with your customers can be a meaningful way to manage expectations that doesn't actually take a lot of effort.

Keeping your customers informed on what’s going on can save you a lot of headache when it comes to readjusting expectations– which is inevitable to happen. Instead of waiting for disappointment to arise when plans change, let your customers know.

What I learned from interacting with customers in real time is to be honest with them. Transparency is key. They might ask a question and I don’t know the answer. They are more patient and understanding if I tell them what I’m doing - checking their account, escalating the question - and most importantly, telling them how long I think it’ll take to get it fixed.

Raul Galera, Partner Manager at CandyBar

If you’re a business that makes deliveries to customers, using a tool like ParcelPerform is beneficial because it can send your customers automatic notifications to know when they should expect to receive their packages and notify them of any changes or delays.

Looking for better customer relationships?

Test Userlike for free and chat with your customers on your website, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram.

Read more

As a tech company, you can create a status page ( like ours at Userlike ) or update your social media profiles with the help of an automation tool like NapoleonCat to keep customers in the loop when you’re experiencing technical issues. This is not only a source of transparency, but can also encourage trust from your customers by being open and honest with them about what’s going on behind the scenes.

Aim for consistency

One of the reasons a business like Starbucks is so successful is because you always know what to expect, no matter where in the world you are.

Book cover of The Checklist Manifesto.

Consistency is a process that shows itself over time and requires ongoing attention. It can easily be overlooked, though, so formalizing processes within the business can help make sure that you’re staying on track.

These include training, standardizing processes, and creating and following checklists .

Once you’ve begun working on a consistent level, managing customer expectations will become even easier because customers who’ve interacted with you before will know what to expect from you. Not only that, but you’ll also be able to meet them since it’s become a normal routine.

Met? Managed.

Managing customer expectations results in positive returns for both businesses and customers alike. Businesses are able to meet the needs of their customers and customers take away a pleasant experience.

It’s no impossible feat to manage your customers’ expectations. All it takes is some time, mindful behavior and practice. This will transform for the better the way you perceive your audience and interactions with them.