Why managing expectations matters more than ever

I love my newly adopted home country, Portugal.  The people, culture, food and wine and climate are all parts of why this is becoming a more popular business for business as well as leisure.  A friendly and accommodating workforce with high technical skills and low (comparative) salaries make for a perfect destination for oversees businesses looking to outsource.  One area where Portugal sometimes struggles (as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs) is focusing on the customer experience, rather than simply following process – and this has a couple of knock on impacts.

In a couple of recent interactions both online and in stores, this was born out in the form of a rather annoying experience – being left waiting for a considerable length of time without any explanation or update.  Timid store staff or process-focused customer service agents focus on the task in hand, forgetting that a customer is waiting for a successful outcome to their request.  Poor communication management results in unnecessary frustration, so in this week’s post, I’ll highlight four scenarios where expectation management matters the most.

Manage expectations when customers are waiting:  It’s an all-too-common scenario.  The person serving you says something like, “can you hold on for a minute whilst I sort this out?”, then they disappear.  After a couple of minutes, you wonder if it’s almost sorted.  After 10 minutes, you feel frustrated.  After 15 minutes, you begin to worry that something is seriously wrong.  After 20 minutes, you lose the will to live!  When I worked in a department store as a teenager, there were occasions when a task I was carrying out took longer than expected.  My old boss, Betty constantly reminded me to pop out and let the customer know that I was still working on the task, just to reassure them.  Not once did a customer get really grumpy, in fact they always seemed to appreciate the update, even if only to hear that the task wasn’t yet complete.  It baffles me that those who serve customers sometimes lack the skills to track time elapsed.  Even if you are not the best at realising that you’ve left your customer hanging, find a way to prompt yourself to go back and check in with the customer every few minutes.  It will stop your customer getting annoyed and buy you a little extra time as you deliver your job.

Manage expectations when you are unsure: It’s the scenario any customer-facing colleague dreads – the customer hands over an unfamiliar type of credit card, or requests access to a service that is rarely used.  Customer-facing colleagues can be split into three categories when faced with doing something they don’t know how to do.  The first lot will wing it, hoping for the best, aiming to deliver the fastest possible service.  This can work out fine, but it can equally backfire if you do things wrong, then have to start all over again.

The second bunch will run away and hide, dragging their feet as they fear messing up, and vainly hoping the customer will simply leave.  Admitting that you don’t know how to do something feels too shameful for some, and this ends up with an unhappy customer and an unhappy colleague.

The last bunch of people will manage expectations by admitting their lack of knowledge with the customer.  “I’ve never taken a JCB credit card payment before, would you mind if I just check up on the right procedure before I take the payment?” Whilst the colleague gets up to speed, they’ve also managed the customer expectation.  It may take a little longer than the first scenario (winging it), but usually results in the right action and a happy customer.

Manage expectations when things are changing: Processes, products and services are continually changing, and for any call centre manager, it’s a real challenge to keep all staff up to date on every change as well as delivering the day job.  But there are times when change is sufficiently significant as to disrupt normal operations. This is only really a problem if expectations are not managed.  If your SLA is going to dip for a fixed period whilst your people get up to speed with the new product or service, make sure to manage stakeholder expectations, communicate to customers, and give you and the team breathing space to adjust.  By and large, people will accept minor short term disruption if they understand why it’s happening and when it will end.  Don’t leave your customers in the dark whilst overwhelming your staff; put out a message about the impact of the change to manage expectations.

Manage expectations when things are complicated : Technology is beautiful when it works, but there are times when it doesn’t.  Whether it’s technical troubleshooting, installing new software, changing from one platform to another or making physical change, what might start out as something seemingly straight forward can become more complex.  As you dig deeper and deeper into why your change did not working, chasing down the elusive fix, the clock is ticking.  Before you know it, 15 minutes, an hour, a day have flown by.  You are almost there, almost sorted, then ta-dah – you’ve fixed it!

You triumphantly go back to the customer to share the victory only to be met with a glum or frosty response.  Schoolboy error – you forgot to manage expectations!  As with the other three scenarios, it’s inevitable that some stuff takes longer than expected, that sometimes unexpected complication gets in the way, but unless you keep going back to the customer with updates, all your hard work could be wiped out by the customer’s unhappiness.

These four points are stating the obvious – it’s not rocket science to keep  customer engaged and in the loop, but because it’s easy to do, we often forget to do it.  So perhaps now is a good time to look over your own customer experience – how consistently are you and your people managing your customer expectations?

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