Great Expectations

A customer’s expectations coupled with a vendor’s efforts to meet / exceed them has
been the crux of most business relationships since Day One.

Realistically speaking, it is not feasible for every business to delight every customer,
every time out. However, businesses could do their customers, and themselves, a huge
favor by clearly setting accurate expectations as to what will occur in any given
business interaction. This is not nearly as daunting a task as it may seem. Spend a
month tracking calls in any business, and you will see trends emerge. You can identify
aspects of the business that confuse, baffle, bewilder, irritate, inconvenience, and
generally aggravate customers.

Clearly, one of the main differences between great and not-so-great businesses is the
ability to quickly and effectively identify and address the problematic issues that arise
regularly. An ounce of the proper prevention is worth more than a ton of cure in the
business world.

In this day and age, customers have come to expect services to be focused on their
needs. If / when there are particular rules, regulations, procedures, or policies that
stand in the way of the customer getting exactly what he / she wants, then those
roadblocks need to be addressed upfront and satisfactory work-arounds need to be
provided. Otherwise, customers and service personnel keep having the same
unpleasant discussions month in and month out.

Case in point, I recently worked with a benefits management service provider, which
manages commuter transit and parking benefits for its clients. Because they are a
benefit provider operating on pre-tax payroll deductions, and not a retail outlet, they
are subject to certain regulations set forth by the Internal Revenue Service. But because
the product they sell is typically sold in a retail environment, the customer’s logical
expectation is that the basic rules of retail commerce apply. And therein lies the
problem: that chasm between expectation and reality.

It is not sufficient for businesses to assume that because they have mentioned these
roadblocks to the officer of the client company responsible for signing the contract, the
issues have been satisfactorily addressed. There is no guarantee that the person who
signs the contract is going to thoroughly and accurately disseminate all of the necessary
information to the end users. Realistically, the dissemination of pertinent usability
information should not be in question. The product or service provider has the
expertise; it is they who need to ensure that all users understand any limitations or
restrictions associated with the product or service.

For this transportation benefits company, one of the issues that cropped up time and
time again was that of returns. A program participant, for whatever reason, decides
that he / she does not need or want their benefit for a given month, and wants to return
their train pass and receive a refund of their money. However, because of the train pass
was paid for using pre-tax payroll deductions, this company is not able to simply take
the pass back and refund the participant’s money. Because the money was deducted
from the participant’s paycheck prior to taxes being assessed, the deduction has
resulted in lowering his / her taxable income. To simply refund the amount of money
spent on the pass, without reassessing the taxes, amounts to tax fraud. Neither the
participant, nor the benefits provider wants to get involved in tax issues, and once this
is explained, most logical people understand the no-refund regulation. However, this is
a situation that the benefits provider chose not to thoroughly explain publicly, for
whatever reason, and they were forced to explain it individually to angry customers
each time a refund was requested and denied.

This information, as well as other details regarding policies, procedures and guidelines
surrounding transportation benefits could have been sent out to each participant when
they first sign up. The company, in trying to contain costs, cut some very important
corners. Between the time it took for the service representatives to explain things, and
the negative feelings the misunderstandings caused, it probably ended up costing them

This same benefits provider had similar issues concerning the usability of its web site,
where all orders are placed and changes are made. Placing or canceling an order is a
fairly straightforward process, for the most part. However, it is all for naught if the
order or cancellation is not properly confirmed, and this is where confusion
reigns. While the site has detailed ordering instructions posted, the user needs to first
find them, in order to read them. In this case, a small, nondescript link to the instructions
was placed among several other links, instead of simply being posted right
where the order is to be placed or cancelled. Even this would be forgivable if the order
or cancellation confirmation process was intuitive. But no; on this site, the order or
cancellation confirmation buttons are “below the fold,” meaning that users had to scroll
down the page to see them. Yet there is nothing on the order page that informs the user
that such confirmation is necessary, or that they need to scroll down the page for any

As a consequence, the unsuspecting user places or cancels his or her order, and simply
closes the browser window, blissfully believing that the mission is accomplished. But
by not hitting that confirmation button, it is as if the user never even visited the web
site. No order has been placed (or cancelled). There is no visible indication that the
user had even attempted to place or change an order. Now, fast-forward a month or
two, and the user either does not receive a train pass that he / she was expecting, or
does receive a train pass that he / she believed had been cancelled. Because the benefits
provider chose not to post clear, accessible usability instructions, and did not design an
intuitive web site interface, they were forced to explain the process to angry customers
each time an order was not correctly placed or cancelled.

These are just two examples of how a business caused problems for its customers and
itself by not going the extra mile to properly set expectations. Explanations and workarounds
are fine, but they have to be understood by the users in order for them to be
effective. Having your service personnel explain these things after the fact is not an
efficient use of the customer’s time, and can cause ill will in the customer relationship.
Do yourself and your customers a favor by setting accurate expectations for users
before they do business with you. When the process goes smoothly, you typically have
a happy customer, and you have a great expectation for success.

— Charles Dennis
© Knowledgence Associates, 2004 / All Rights Reserved

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