Setting poor expectations is worse than poor service

As children, many of may have been scolded by our parents when we exaggerated truth and made up excessive embellishments in our stories.  My parents would tell me that if I made up stories, my nose would grow as long as Pinocchio – the little wooden puppet boy in the children’s novel by Carlo Collodi.  Human nature dictates that at times, we want to make bold promises, over-sell our ability or even boast about how much more we can offer than others.  But the dangers of setting unreasonable or inaccurate expectations is as bad as delivering poor service, as I recently noticed on a holiday to Spain.

AirBNB have mastered the online experience for sellers and buyers of accommodation, allowing seamless matching of requirements for a place to stay with available spaces and properties.  Other travellers’ reviews, together with information provided by owners allows a customer to make an informed decision.  This works perfectly well, and my husband & I have come to rely on the accuracy and reliability of AirBNB when we travel.  But what happens when someone has exaggerated details of their property?  On a recent break with friends, we had booked “luxury” accommodation “with 4 bedrooms” and “a heated pool”.  Whilst the accommodation was very pleasant, it was not quite at a luxury level, and with only 3 bedrooms and a bed in a hallway, we were glad that we did not need to make use of the “4th bedroom”. Perhaps most disappointing was the “heated pool”.  Each day, the property owner had various workmen in to fix the rather chilly pool, but until the last morning when we were leaving, the pool was too cold to swim in (we instead headed to the sea, which was considerably warmer.)

Whilst I appreciate that things sometimes go wrong, a mixture of exaggerated  claims and technical mishaps left us feeling that the villa owner had over-committed in his promises and thus probably over-charged on his prices.  In reality, it wont stop us visiting the Canary Islands in future, but as we chatted afterwards, I realised that all of us had lost our faith in AirBNB. Next time, the “safer bet” of a hotel, with more independent reviews and more leverage in case of issues seems more likely to meet our expectations.  Even though AirBNB didn’t do anything wrong, as the promoter of a service that oversold expectations, the habit of trusting that service has quickly been broken, resorting to a longer established habit of booking hotels instead.

For a more comical example of over-promising and under-delivering, we need only tune in to early morning / late night television to watch “infomercials”.  How many of us have purchased a product, mesmerized by the incantations of the presenter, only to feel deeply disappointed or even embarrassed when a mediocre product arrives that does not achieve the result we were expecting.  The infamous “but wait, there’s more” line used in so many informercials to hook you in with the offer of “extra free gifts” is all part of a sophisticated process to raise your expectations and belief that a simple exercise machine will give you that sought-after 6-pack or that chopping device will turn you into a gourmet chef.  We allow ourselves to believe something that seems to good to be true, then when reality hits, we feel all the more disappointed that we did believe.  From a business perspective, it may drive new sales, but it rarely if ever leads to retention and advocacy.

So let’s flip this round, and consider our role and responsibility in managing the balance between bold marketing and promotion with setting achievable, believable and deliverable expectations.  I could claim to be the “best customer experience consultant in the world.”  It’s hard to prove or disprove, some may even agree with the statement, but for a potential client, am I setting myself up to fail?  Instead, claiming to be ” knowledgeable and experienced expert” might better promote by skills without excess exaggeration.

For many of us in the UK, one business is consistently named at the top of the customer service / customer experience list – John Lewis department store chain.  With a unusual structure of employees who are partners in the business, creating a unique driver to deliver the best experience, John Lewis are relied on and trusted by many people across the UK, and have a brand that has become synonymous with quality, reliability and never quibbling with a customer if the customer is not happy.  I reflected on this, and their long-established slogan sprung to mind: “never knowingly undersold.”  I always associated this with John Lewis’ price promise to refund the difference if you found a comparable product locally, but what if this has a deeper meaning around always being honest and true in the expectations you set?  The open and transparent meaning of this famous policy fills John Lewis customers with confidence and trust, and means that even if things go wrong, their customer know that issues will be resolved, faith restored in the company and loyalty maintained.  This feels quite different to my recent experience with AirBNB, and has made me reflect on the brands and businesses who command my loyalty.

Perhaps it’s time for you to reflect on your customer promise, your marketing message and see how close to reality your expectations sit?  John Lewis’s promise is a great place to start, as I’m sure Craig Inglis, Customer Director at John Lewis would agree!

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