When Customer Expectations Become Impossible

Many people love to complain, and trying to get some personalized help in an increasingly fast-paced and automated world can aggravate even the most calm and placid among us.

But is it even possible to define a standard for customer service? Or are we dealing with a moving target?

From a common sense point of view, we can of course argue that most people agree on what good service looks like. An example would be "pick up the phone on the first ring." Another might be "return most emails within two hours."

At the same time, however, expectations change based on evolving cultural norms. These, in turn, are shaped by at least three factors, and each of them is relative, comparative and evolves over time:

  • Culture: One of my favorite characters on Seinfeld was the "Soup Nazi," who would throw customers out of his store if they spoke out of turn in any way when ordering food.  The guy was so funny to watch because he violated the typical cultural expectation of solicitous service in the face of rude urban customers. In his store, you complained about anything at the risk of losing your precious right to get some good takeout, and as such the characters were trained to believe that any service at all was good. Another aspect of culture relates to how you were raised. For me, another memory that is very vivid is my mother saying: "The world doesn't owe you anything." As such, as an adult, my expectations with regard to customer service are lower than most other people I know.
  • Comparisons (a.k.a., "misery loves company"): If the average experience is good, you expect to be treated at least as well as other people. Conversely, if the experience is poor, then your experience of poor treatment feels "normal." For example, I remember, as a child, waiting for a long time to clear Customs on the way to visit my dad's parents in Canada. It would never have occurred to me that the wait could be less than two hours, at a minimum.
  • Technology: Today's customer is normally accompanied by a smart device and immersed at least to some extent in email and social media. These tools --along with sophisticated search engine technology, online "cookies," avatars powered by artificial intelligence, chat platforms, and powerful customer relationship management databases -- lead the average person to expect "kid glove," rapid-response, solicitous and personalized service most of the time.

It may be surprising to think of customer service as a relative factor when it comes to performance; it's easier to tell oneself that there is a certain "high mark" that is achievable if only one puts forth sufficient effort.

The pressure to deliver some magical level of service is intensified by the competitive climate associated with running a business today. As copycats abound and most technology becomes diffused, companies lack any meaningful point of differentiation. Promising an  ever-higher level of personalization and care, in an effort to win and retain customers, can seem like an easy and attractive option. Yet the more companies compete on this front, the more likely that the reality proves to be just the opposite.

So how can you win at customer service? The trick is to conceive of service the right way in the first place -- as a relative thing that is largely dependent on perception.

Therefore, the first and most important task is to create an expectation among your consumer set that will match the reality, at least most of the time. 

The second task is to hire and retain managerial, technological and operational talent such that your customer service is at least as good as most of your competitors -- and preferably outstanding in at least one respect that most others fail to leverage.

The third task is to avoid, at all costs, artificially generating positive reviews. If your corporate culture depends on astro-turfing (fake paid support), your staff is likely to cut corners when it comes to the very human effort needed to deliver outstanding customer care.

I had a supervisor once who told me that "perception becomes reality." If you want to give people a great customer experience, focus on improving the perception first. And then take every proactive step to cushion the customer from unwanted, unpleasant interruptions.

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Public domain. Opinions the author's own. Photo via Pixabay (Public Domain)

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