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Customer Expectations, Experience and Satisfaction – What is the Relationship?

Working in the Service Sector, as I have for many years, it becomes all too easy to believe the hype that customers are becoming more and more demanding with every experience that they have. Today’s great experience, is tomorrow’s mediocre experience and so on. This vision of a society of emerging super-brat customers banging their fists on the table because they want more than they have been given is one which strikes fear into the hearts of Customer Service Managers. It also leads businesses to spend more and more on goodwill gestures and complimentary services to pacify even the most demanding customers so that they do not post that most dreaded of all things on social media – a negative review.

In this desperate vision where customer service providers are enslaved to the whims of the public – many companies find themselves focusing on damage limitation rather than aspiring to genuine delight, regardless of what their vision for customer experience may say.

I’ve witnessed many companies caught in an endless cycle of increased customer service spend which delivers stunted or flat-lining customer experience scores and no improvements to customer satisfaction overall.

So why is this?

No-one can deny the importance of watching current trends in customer experience to ensure that real analysis of customer feedback in all its forms can identify new opportunities to deliver for customers.

However, it’s important not to get caught up in the hype. There is currently a self-fulfilling prophecy at work where customers have a poor experience and so they go on to social media in despair to force a response. As a reaction, companies sense a PR nightmare and so overcompensate with huge gestures of goodwill.

This dynamic means that people read these stories on social media and see the grand gestures they have inspired from organisations. Human nature then leads us all to want the same from our service experience and so this inspires more customers to post negative experiences online in the hope of getting the ‘good stuff’ they have seen from other providers.

The effects of this cycle are 3-fold:

Customers see an increased level of negative experiences which damages their perception of the brand

Customers see knee-jerk reactions from companies making increasingly excessive gestures and this becomes the new norm

Companies become caught in a cycle of both keeping up with the gestures of their competitors and also the artificially skewed perceptions they have given to customers about how poor experiences should be addressed 

So, what is the truth about customer expectations of customer experience and how should organisations that work in customer service respond?

It’s so important for anyone who works in Customer Service or Customer Experience to take a step away from the hype and perceptions of what is expected and remind themselves of what is at the heart of customer service interactions and experiences.

Reminding ourselves that we are all customers and we are all recipients of customer service every day of our lives means that we are all experts in ‘what good looks like’ to us.

Thinking about how we want to be treated changes the focus of the goals of a customer service experience away from grand gestures to a more human one in which people want to be treated fairly and reasonably without feeling processed like a parcel on a conveyor belt.

So, what does this mean when it comes to defining what we really want or expect from a customer experience?

A useful starting point is to help express in a simple way the things that we don’t want from our experiences. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some of the key things I have found from both my own experiences as a customer and as a provider of customer service are:

People don’t want to feel ignored or disregarded. No-one likes the feeling that they being processed or are not being taken seriously – whether this is through not getting responses to enquiries, being repeatedly given standard responses to questions or simply by feeling that no-one is taking the time to hear what you are saying. People want to be listened to and then responded to in a personalised, sincere way

People don’t like to be given false expectations – as we immediately picture an experience playing out in this way – only to be left feeling disappointed or worse – feeling tricked when things don’t play out as described. People want to know what will happen and when

People don’t want to feel manipulated – if people sense that processes are being made deliberately complicated or time-consuming to prevent them taking a particular course of action- it creates a sense that they are not in control of what is happening, that they are at the mercy of the service provider. People want to be treated fairly and deal with someone who is open, honest and transparent

People don’t want to feel like they are having to make all the effort themselves. There is nothing worse than feeling like we are battling to get something done, that we are the ones trying to move things forwards or sort things out. People want to feel that they are being proactively helped and that experiences are effortless

Clearly, no company sets out to do these things on purpose – that would a blue-print for disaster. So why do customers dealing with companies in all sectors and all price segments report these kinds of concerns?

The reality is that these things happen unintentionally, where the true purpose of providing a customer service experience has got lost along the way. Service Level Agreements, Procedural Policies and Service Frameworks all designed to ensure quality – result in disempowered staff forced to handle customer interactions in a way that is all too often a de-humanising experience – and the impact is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved: Customers despair at the service they receive and then turn to social media in a last-ditched attempt to force a better outcome, colleagues resign themselves to only being able to provide the most perfunctory experience and managers and organisations are in dismay at the stagnant Customer Satisfaction Data.

In this environment – grand gestures do little to address the underlying issues – the activities that drive customers to feel dissatisfied and then share this dissatisfaction will continue – and no amount of free goods or services will change that. The end result is that the gestures get bigger, the customers get more demanding but the levels of satisfaction flat-line.

Businesses should view these kinds of grand gestures on social media as a PR / Marketing investment that help promote the way their brand and organisation is perceived but should not use this approach as a way to transform disappointing Customer Satisfaction MI.

Instead, organisations and the leaders within them who are responsible for shaping the culture and approach to customer experience should focus on two key areas:

1. Focusing on the basics of each and every customer interaction:

  • Listening to people and then respond to them in a personalised, sincere way
  • Providing a guided experience. Be clear about what will happen and when, so there are no surprises or misunderstandings
  • Treating people fairly and being open, honest and transparent
  • Making things effortless and showing that you are proactively helping people

2. Empowering staff to do what is right for the customer and allowing a good degree of freedom to use judgement and discretion when applying policies and processes. Design Internal Quality Assurance Processes and Coaching Frameworks to measure and develop these decisions making skills so that colleagues can confidently do the right thing for the customer whilst also protecting business interests.

Of course, the ways in which customers interact with service organisations have evolved and transformed over recent years – and every successful business needs to adapt and embrace these mechanisms to engage with their customers – that’s a given.

But when answering the question about what customers want – treating people as human beings and showing that you are working to do what is right for them will always do more for customer loyalty and satisfaction than the grandest of grand gestures.