Expectations vs. Reality:


Managing the Customer Experience


Have you ever watched a TV commercial for, say, a restaurant or retail chain, and wondered if the producers had bothered to visit a store? These ads invariably show happy, handsome, well-dressed employees who are practically quivering with eagerness to serve. You scratch your head as you recall your experiences in actual stores, where under-motivated and under-managed employees provide uninspired service.

No doubt advertisers are entitled to a certain poetic license. Consumers know that the food never looks as good as the picture on the box, and the service seldom equals the staged portrayals in the commercials. Nevertheless, these ads do serve to set the expectations of new customers and to confirm the experiences of existing ones. If there is too wide a gap between expectations and reality the result can range from customer turnover to public mockery - clearly not the intention of the Marketing team.

The problem becomes more salient when companies try to portray their service as a competitive differentiator. In the case of true service leaders, like Saturn and Southwest Airlines, the expectations they set are generally confirmed through experience. But consider Albertson's Supermarkets. At one point it ran an ad campaign that featured store employees singing about their jobs. The refrain was, "It's Joe Albertson's supermarket, but the Produce (or Meat or Dairy) Department is mine."

The ads clearly set the expectation that new customers would find employees who were knowledgeable, invested in their work and eager to take the initiative to provide good advice. As a long-time observer of the retail scene, I can safely say that the service at Albertson's seldom rises above the mediocre. There are, no doubt, stand-out stores and exceptional employees, but by and large the service is nothing to sing about. Did Marketing ever talk to Operations before running these ads?

Another example is with a now-defunct regional bank. Some years ago it ran ads introducing its on-line banking service - a novelty at the time. Research conducted by my firm showed that branch employees were largely in the dark about the product. In some cases the employees first learned about it from the same source as their customers: through ads. By not coordinating with the Training department, Marketing had jumped the gun and, in effect, set employees up for failure and set customers up for disappointment.

It has been said that the job of Marketing is to attract customers, and the job of service is to keep them. Between the two they are responsible for the entire lifecycle of the customer. In the book "The Loyalty Effect", author Frederick Reichheld makes the case that the longer customers remain with a company, the more profitable they become. However, customers must first pass break-even by staying long enough to pay off the cost of acquiring them, a period that may range from weeks to years, depending on the industry.

That early stage in the company/customer relationship is crucial, because it is the period when turnover rates are typically highest. New customers, lacking actual experience with the company, must set their expectations from other sources, such as advertisements and word-of-mouth endorsements. Over time they will calibrate their expectations to actual experiences, but in the early stage they are more prone to disappointment and less tolerant of unpleasant surprises.

A growing number of companies are now taking an approach called "Customer Experience Management" (CEM), in which the entire customer lifecycle is mapped out, from pre-acquisition through optimal profitability. With CEM, Marketing, Training and Operations work as a team to develop an integrated strategy to move customers up the Loyalty/Profit Curve. Thus, acquiring a new customer is not considered an achievement unless the customer stays with the company past the break-even point, however many months or years that takes. That means that with every new advertising, PR or marketing campaign, Training and Operations must be part of a coordinated plan to walk customers to the next stage in their lifecycle.

Is it truly realistic to include operational employees in the advertising process? Sure it is, if they are the ones who are expected to deliver on the promises made in the ads. Employees in service-leading organizations are often familiar with the message and promises contained in the company's advertisements before the ads come out. Furthermore, they are able to articulate their role in the campaign, and are provided with the tools and knowledge to fulfill that role. This approach ensures that employees are not set up for failure, and customers are not left scratching their heads.


If there is too wide a gap between expectations and reality the result can range from customer turnover to public mockery - clearly not the intention of the Marketing team.