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Setting Expectations

by David Brock on March 7th, 2014

I’m encamped in our local Starbucks, busy with my morning series of conference calls.  Power is out at the office–the whole area is without power.  It’s been out since about 10 pm last night.  The power company was great in notifying us about the outage and setting our expectations about when power would be restored.

They said it would be restored at 5:45 am.  It’s 7:00 am, I’m at Starbucks.

I did something sneaky.  There are about 4 guys working at a big piece of electrical gear.  They are switching out parts.  I bought them some coffee.

They were appreciative, we talked for a while.  I asked them when they thought things would be done.  They replied, “Noon at the very earliest, this is a big job (and I was slowing them down).”

I said, “The power company said it would be done by 5:45 am, what’s up?”

They responded there was never any way the outage would have been corrected by that time.  The job was always estimated to be completed by Noon or a little after.  They didn’t know why the power company had set the wrong expectation.

I trust the estimate these guys gave me.  They’re doing the work.  They aren’t sitting in an office trying to “manage customer expectations.”

I wondered, Why did the power company set an expectation that power would be restored by 5:45am, when the people doing the work knew it would take until at least Noon?  I suppose someone thought that people could accept an overnight outage and they could later make an excuse for a little delay.

I don’t understand the logic.  I’m trying to plan my day.  I need access to computers, phones, power.  If they aren’t setting the right expectation, I have to keep disrupting what I do.  Every time they miss their commitment, I get more upset.  I wonder, why don’t they know, why don’t they tell me?

It turns out they do know, but for some strange reason they don’t want to tell me.

We see it all the time, sometimes we mis-set expectations.  I’m confused about why we do this purposefully.  We know we are going to make the customer unhappy.  But why are we purposefully going to make the customer unhappy multiple times?

In this case, we were unhappy that power had to be shut off, but knew it was because of maintenance.  We’re OK with that, anxiously looking forward to the power being restored.

But now we are disappointed again, and possibly will be disappointed again, and again, and…

Each time we set expectations and miss meeting them, we erode our relationship and trust with our customers.

Meeting expectations is how we build equity with our customers.

Are you meeting your customer’s expectations?

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14 Comments
  1. Dave,

    Very sad, very true.

    And sometimes, the correction over-corrects, as in the proverb “under-promise and over-deliver.”

    The best solution is the simplest: tell the truth. To the best of your ability, and with updates as new information comes available, tell the truth. Don’t under-estimate, don’t over-estimate; simply make your best estimate and go with that to the public.

    • Couldn’t have said it better myself Charlie! As always, thanks for the great clarity you bring with your comments.

  2. What a trust breaker this is, but yet we see this “way of doing business” practiced routinely.

    • Barbara: It’s really unfortunate this has become a “way of doing business.” It makes those who don’t stoop to these methods stand out.

  3. Peter permalink

    As my Grandfather would say; “Some think, if you cut the dogs tail off a little at a time it won’t hurt as much.”

  4. kevin parmenter permalink

    This is great, I have always said sales 101 is setting and delivering on expectations. This has sometimes brought about great arguments and gnashing of teeth at semiconductor companies where I have worked before when I mention this statement. I noticed in two recent transactions I have had one in a bank today getting some paperwork notarized and on the phone with a car rental company recently. The first one, the bank – I walked in asked to have something notarized and immediately the individual started out telling me what they cant do – “we cant notarize 1099’s we cant do this, we cant do that…” – finally I stopped her mid sentence and said simply – why dont we first discuss what I need, you did one like it here at this branch for me last week and it was fine – once we discuss it lets see if you can do it?” Once she stopped talking it was a 4 min event to complete it. She was going to spend 10 min telling me what they cant do – I can come up with things I cant do all by myself I dont need help not getting things done. The car rental company wanted to get me to do all my own stuff online and quit bugging them apparently. We cant do this and we cant do that on the phone but you can do it on line yourself….- I finally asked why they had the phone support if they cant do anything? She was stunned and kind of said.. yeah you are right. Now I made the reservations and she was able to work on them to get me a discount but I had to do everything first -“for security purposes” thats the hide behind for cost cutting and poor customer service. I suppose if these organizations set the service expectations at zero then anything beyond that is great. I think the lawyers might have done this to us all or cost cutting in the race to the bottom for spending. If we are supposed to be a service economy we are awful at it – and your first encounter with a service worker is like a barrage of warnings from a pharmaceutical company commercial – but I am sure they expect more sales of course even though they mandate their employees follow these insane warning rules.

  5. Acclaimed author, Thomas (Tom) Peters stated that the Formula for Success is Under Promise and Over Deliver.

    Excerpt from his best-seller, “In Search of Excellence”
    “Many businesses fail because they consistently promise more than they can actually deliver. They might get by with more and more promises for a while, but eventually too many customers will hear of their bad practices and they’ll go out of business.”

    There is a simple reason why David’s power company did not under-promise or over-deliver.
    Power companies don’t go out of business

  6. David;

    I have no idea what would prompt a utility to overpromise like this.

    Over Christmas, many parts of Toronto was without power for several days. Our area was without power for 5 days because of the severe ice storms.

    After this ordeal, Ontario Hydro’s idea of service was ask people to line up for several hours to receive a $100 rebate check. For 5 days without hydro – in the middle of

    And then they ran out of checks.

    I am now a complete convert to natural gas cogeneration stations – the more personal the better!

  7. ” We know we are going to make the customer unhappy. But why are we purposefully going to make the customer unhappy multiple times?”

    It’s better to be honest and have a slightly frustrated customer, than set the bar so high you can’t hit it and have a really angry customer. Transparency and honesty can keep rough situations from getting way out of hand and keep everyone even keel, even if the power doesn’t come back for 5 hours.

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