15 Ways to Set and Meet Customer Expectations

Setting and meeting customer expectations is a complicated, multi-step process that begins before first contact, continues throughout the customer relationship and requires the commitment of everyone in the organization along the way.


1—Let Go, Listen, and Hear

Trying to control another human being is an exercise in futility. So, when working with undoubtedly you want them to buy what you’re selling. The best way to do that is to not try to control them, and to let go, listen, and actually hear what they need.

2—Create Culture from the Top Down

Leadership sets the tone for a company’s culture. As McKinsey stated in a recent book about CEO excellence, leaders need to be the “energy they want to see.” Good leaders need to be pragmatic and focused, but also need to channel confidence, a positive attitude and both professional and personal empowerment to gain loyalty.

McKinsey gives the example of the CEO of Electronic Arts, Andrew Wilson, who stopped during a pandemic Zoom call with thousands of employees on the line to do a very small thing: to help his five-year-old son make a paper airplane. 

“It took thirty seconds…afterward people reached out and said: ‘Thank you. You just gave us permission to be parents…to spend the time,’” Wilson said. Rather than an unrelenting focus on share prices, productivity and work over life, he took a simple moment during a trying time to be human, and empower his employees to acknowledge the demands of pandemic work-life balance. Balanced employees will be more loyal to the company, driven to help customers and less likely to experience burnout and frustration that they will pass on to coworkers and customers in turn.

3—Walk in Your Customer’s Shoes

“When you are making a decision about how best to serve your customers,” Branson told Entrepreneur. “Your own experience is often a better guide than a more sophisticated analysis of the market.”

Failure to use your own products or services in the same way customers do means that you don’t understand your customer’s experience. If you don’t know what your customer experiences, you don’t know what they need. If you don’t know what they need, you can’t give it to them.

4—Set Realistic Expectations for Consistency

Consistency requires specific, realistic goals. For a company to meet its customers’ expectations, it has to deliver on those goals.

“…And then not to just meet them but to exceed them—preferably in unexpected and helpful ways,” says Branson. “Setting customer expectations at a level that is aligned with consistently deliverable levels of customer service requires that your whole staff, from product development to marketing, works in harmony with your brand image.”

Customer service guru Shep Hyken recommends talking to customer-facing employees to see what they’re promising customers.

“Does the customer service and experience meet and exceed [customer] expectations?” Hyken writes. “Is their perception of their experience in line with what we want it to be?”

If customers don’t view your company the way you want them to, you need to take steps to correct those perceptions.

5—Align Expectations with Reality

Customer service strategy needs to align with actual interactions between employees and customers.

Hyken suggests internal surveys aimed at comparing how employees think customers view the company with how customers actually view the company as seen in customer satisfaction surveys.

“When your company’s perceptions of what your customers think of you align with the customers’ perceptions of what they actually think of you, you have what I call customer congruency, and it is a major step toward meet[ing] and exceeding your customers’ expectations,” writes Hyken.

To align strategy with reality, everyone from the CEO to the person working in the mailroom needs to understand what the company’s goals are and how to achieve them.

6—Keep an Eye on the Competition

Your competitors influence customers’ expectations whether you realize it or not, so pay attention to them.

Customer experience expert Jeannie Walters of 360Connext says that ignoring our competition “is foolish” because competitors can make your customers believe that the grass is greener in their pastures.

“Watching what your competition is doing is critical since the chatter about your services or products will be compared in these circles to the chatter about your competitor’s,” writes Walters. “Some negative reviews will be from customers who have never tried your products, but they believe what they hear from their trusted network.”

Walters says that we’re social creatures who “listen to our peer networks more than ever about purchases and business relationships.”

So keep tabs on your competition and stay up to date about what they’re doing in customer service and what consumers think about it. Doing so will give you a more complete picture of the marketplace as well.


7—Hire Natural Helpers Who Fit Your Culture

Some people are helpers, others aren’t. Whether it’s a nurture or a nature thing, helpers don’t need to be trained to provide good service. These people are ideal hires for customer service roles. Look for ways to weed out bad hires early on, and retain those employees who are great cultural fits.

One of the first companies to innovate in ensuring their new hires fit their culture was Zappos. Among their many pioneering initiatives was an intensive four-week training program, immersing new employees in the company’s culture, strategy and processes. At the end of the program, employees would be offered several thousand dollars not as a bonus but to do something very unusual: to quit. It was a test of commitment, essential for delivering top-notch customer service. Very few took the offer. 

Many companies followed this example and incorporated this type of offer into their processes, including startup Trainual. “[I]if you’re trying to go from good to great, and you’ve had a few people turn over here and there and you wish you caught it earlier, I think that’s a fantastic technique,” said Trainual CEO Chris Ronzio.

8—Set Expectations Before the First Sales Interaction

If you don’t set customer expectations before a sales interaction takes place, your customers will set them for you.

Everyone shops online these days. Whether it’s looking for deals or conducting research, your customers are looking for it online. They come to you with expectations based on their research.

Undoubtedly, they’ve checked out your website, which had better be easy-to-use, informative, and responsive to mobile devices. They’ve looked at your user forum, read online user reviews, and asked their friends about you.

Social media can have a bit of the Wild West, but it’s an important arena where you can engage and influence conversations about your company and products.

9—Be Empathetic, Honest, and Transparent

Once a customer interaction begins, remember that this is a relationship like any other. All the same cornerstones for a good relationship still apply—honesty, empathy, transparency, trust.

Be transparent from the get-go. That means explaining what services your company provides and what it doesn’t so customers know exactly what products and services they can expect from you.

According to customer loyalty expert Myra Golden, you can say no to customers and they’ll be okay with it. If you demonstrate that you understand their inconvenience (empathy), explain what’s happening (transparency), and tell them what you can do about it (action).

10—Provide Tutorials on Products, Services

There’s no faster way to learn what a product or service can and than with a tutorial. Whether it’s one-on-one, via webinar, or a YouTube video, a tutorial helps customers understand exactly what they’re getting.

Tutorials can live on your websites behind landing pages. You can link to them through calls to action (CTAs) in emails, blog posts, tweets, and on other communication channels. Be proactive and provide as many touch points as possible so your customers don’t have to search for them.

11—Follow Up

There are now more ways than ever to stay in touch with your customers. Follow-ups are a great opportunity to start conversations and get feedback.

High-touch service anticipates customer needs before they arise. It also keeps the organization at the forefront of the customer’s mind, as long as communication isn’t annoying or spammy.

Pretty much everyone has received this type of communication before. It can be anything: a birthday card; a feedback request form about how you liked your purchase; or a simple thank you with a coupon.

This type of high-touch service makes for a positive customer experience that people appreciate and remember.


12—Join the Conversation

Turning a deaf ear to broader discussions about your products or your market means missing out on important data about your company.

“Customers will often contact a company via multiple channels if one channel is unresponsive,” writes Jeff Toister. “For instance, they might tweet about their problem if they don’t get a quick response to an email. You can avoid this by making sure you monitor all of your customer service channels on a regular basis.”

Joining the conversation is the best way to influence the flow of information about your company. Active engagement provides an avenue for differentiation and can be attractive to potential customers when they see your responsiveness.

13—Make Complaining Easy

With so many ways for your customers to talk to you, complaining should be very easy for them. And you want it to be because that’s how you learn where your shortcomings are.

With so many communication channels available (websites, blogs, user forums, social media, emails, outbound IVR, etc.) you should encourage engagement everywhere. You want to engage your customers at every touch point and make it easy for them to respond.

14—Actually Use the Feedback

“Isn’t asking for someone’s opinion and then not doing anything substantial with it or not telling them what you are going to do following their input tantamount to not asking at all?” says customer service expert Adrian Swinscoe. “Follow up and follow through seems to be where there is a real issue.”

In other words, there’s no point in collecting feedback if you don’t use it.

“To establish and maintain a healthy flow, customer feedback must result in change your customers can see,” Whitney Wood of the Phelon Group told Inc. magazine. “Change is the most powerful currency to reward vocal and consultative customers.”

15—Follow Up on Feedback

So you’ve collected feedback from your customers. Now tell them how you’ve used it. At the very least, you should thank them and acknowledge that their participation is important to you.

Even if their feedback isn’t going to lead directly to change, you can still let them know that you value their opinion. If their feedback does lead to a change, telling them that can be rewarding. It also sets a baseline for accepting and responding to customer concerns going forward.