Managing Expectations: The Myth of the Non-Existent Timeline

If you live and work on planet Earth then you’ve experienced something like this:

Joe: Hey Suzie, can you get me X.

Suzie: You betcha’, but I’m pretty swamped right now. When do you need it?

Joe: No rush… whenever you get to it.

managing expectations

Joe and Suzie think they’re on the same page. Solid.

It seems like a harmless exchange so far. Unfortunately, there’s a decent chance this relationship is about to take a nasty hit. Remember, Suzie said she was busy. What happens to a task that doesn’t have a defined timeline when you’re busy? Usually, nothing. Fast forward 3 weeks…Suzie’s been tied up with “high priority” tasks, some of them were even items for Joe:

Joe (now frustrated): Hey Suzie, where is X?

Suzie (sensing Joe’s frustration and getting defensive): I just haven’t been able to get to it. I thought you needed it “whenever…”

Joe: Well yeah, but that was like 3 weeks ago. What have you been doing all this time? This is a small task!

Suzie: Fine! I’ll drop everything and have it for you tomorrow.

Joe: Fine!

Suzie: Yeah, fine!

miscommunication leads to anger

Turns out, Joe and Suzie weren’t even reading the same book.

Boy…That escalated quickly. The problem all started when Suzie and Joe decided to move forward without agreeing on a delivery date.

Every request comes with an expectation of when it will be delivered, even if the requester can’t or won’t identify it. When someone says “Whenever you get to it” they really mean “This is a really easy task and surely you’ll get it before the next board meeting in 3 weeks, so I’m not going to be pushy and set a date.” Or even “I know when I need it, but I’m not going to tell you because maybe then I’ll get it early.” Or maybe they just haven’t consciously acknowledged that there is a date they need it by. Whatever the case, it’s trouble.

Here’s a personal experience: A few years ago I decided to lease my first brand new car. Upon closing the deal I told my dealer that I was in no rush and that it was ok if it took a week or two to get the car delivered. And I wasn’t lying, it really didn’t matter to me. However, the dealer insisted he was getting me into my new car by the end of the week. It was important to him! With his assurances in mind, every day that week I got a little more excited about my new car and by Friday, I was stoked to go pick up my new ride. So, when I found out my car wasn’t ready, I was pretty annoyed. I grew increasingly annoyed and ended up flat out mad as more days went by. Finally, the car arrived about a week later. It didn’t matter that I’d started out with no firm delivery date in mind, the dealer set a date of his choosing and then missed it, turning a win into a loss by mismanaging my expectations.

So, what should you do when a client asks you to accomplish something but doesn’t give you a deadline or timeframe?

Look at your workload, identify a place where the task fits, add some buffer, and provide a delivery date to the client. If they accept your date, great! Now, you can focus on delivery. If they reject your suggestion, you’ve just uncovered the hidden time constraint. Now, you’ll be in a position to negotiate and agree upon an acceptable date.

Congratulations, you’ve just averted a crisis by successfully managing your client’s expectations! This is easily one of the most important factors for providing great customer service, keeping your client happy, and maintaining a positive relationship during your work together.

Side note: If there really is no due date, then, in my opinion, there shouldn’t be a task. If something is so unimportant that it doesn’t matter when it gets done, why on earth would you ever spend time doing it?

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 4

So, we’ve followed LEAP – listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, asking clarifying questions and check-downs, and  producing an immediate remedy and long-term process changes to prevent the problem moving forward. Along the way, we’ve kept our customer informed and earned their approval for paths forward. But why go to all this effort when we could just follow the wisdom of “The customer is always right?”

Let’s say that’s true – your customer knows what’s best for them, not you. Your customer has already been inconvenienced with the problem at hand. Why waste their time when you could do what they ask? They’ll come back to you in the future, confident that if things don’t go well then you’ll take care of them. Also, you’ll quickly move on to serving more customers. And, the customer will spread the word about how you took care of them.

In Buffalo, we have a fine grocery store chain that appears to follow this axiom. In practice almost everyone I know who shops there has a story about someone who brought an unsatisfactory item to the store’s customer service desk. Regardless of the problem, even if it was simply that you didn’t like the product, they’d replace the item with something you liked on the spot.

But not every problem is that simple. Does the customer really know the best way to solve the problem? You’re the expert, solving similar problems more often and in greater variety. What if the customer is missing some of the facts? What if you’ve seen their suggested remedy fail for other customers before? What if they’re asking for something that violates your Terms and Conditions? What if it’s not fair as you see it?

It’s hard to frame this in a grocery store scenario–not every business is a grocery store. What if you’re an auto mechanic and your customer suggests a solution that you know would endanger them later? You wouldn’t do it. You honor your customer when you propose a better solution and humbly make the final decision theirs. If they’re not willing to go along, honestly spell out the limits of what you can do. In grey areas, I often find myself negotiating, based on quickly grasping the principles that each side values. Humor goes a long way deflating the stress in the situation.

I think that “the customer is always right” seems to work in simple situations, where facts can quickly be assessed, the cost to get the facts is much higher than the remedy, or the customer isn’t going to hurt themselves. I believe that “propose a better idea” seems to work best when facts are hard to assess well, the cost of fact finding is much lower than the remedy, or the customer could hurt themselves unintentionally. The long term relationship is almost always worth more than the immediate issue, so choose the method that favors your relationship. And remember to go back and improve your process after.

Is there anything I’ve learned from growing my “tough conversations” method over the years? Of course! We’ll talk about that in the next post.

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 3

After two posts in this series, we’ve started with a disgruntled customer escalating a disagreement to senior or executive-level management and we’ve followed a process called LEAP–listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, and asking clarifying questions and check-downs. For produce, we’ve established facts supported by evidence from both sides, proposed an immediate remedy, and proposed process changes to prevent the problem going forward. At this point, we’ve probably sent our customer a lengthy email, detailing all of the above…But do they agree with us? Do they believe our proposal was the best way to solve the problem and will do the best job of preventing similar ones in the future?

When you’ve reached your conclusions about the situation and you know what you’re fairly willing to offer, share your thoughts with your customer using the outline touched on above:

  • Facts
  • Conclusions
  • Immediate Resolution
  • Prevention
  • Approval

That last one is important. If the customer doesn’t believe in the process you’ve suggested, you’re wasting their time and yours. You’ve just accepted responsibility for the whole problem. As an example, I recently received a complaint about screen printing wearing down quickly on garments sold by our customer to a fire department. We took the few garments returned over to our screen printer and asked about the problem. Our screen printer applied an extra curing step to the logos and sent them back to the customer, who promptly complained again. Was this customer just being unreasonable? No, because we failed to discuss our experiment with the customer and get their approval to conduct it. They didn’t participate in the process, so when the garments came back distressed again, we had an even bigger problem.

The next time around we made sure to involve the customer and we discovered that the fire department had an industrial-strength laundry machine built to clean smoke and chemicals out of garments. No normal screen printing could have withstood this mighty behemoth! Now we had our facts and could recommend changes that would truly solve everyone’s problems: switch to embroidery or tackle twill (laser cut decorations that get sewn on). As in this example, it may take several loops through the process to get to the bottom of an issue.

Statistics can be your friend for gaining perspective on a problem. If you consistently make a mistake, it looks bad. If you consistently make a mistake out of thousands of correct operations, it looks different. I once had an airline complain that a logo location varied from shirt to shirt. Even after explaining that the industrial process did not guarantee exact alignment, the customer was unimpressed. But when we sampled hundreds of shirts from a 15,000 shirt order, we found that the variation was within about 3.3 standard deviations (or that around 1 in 1,000 were outliers). These hard numbers changed their perspective. Statistics can help you focus on true bottlenecks.

Another key step in ensuring customer buy-in? As I mentioned earlier, if it wasn’t written, it didn’t happen, so confirm conversations with writing and carbon-copy everyone involved in an issue. Why would you (or your customer) leave someone out? Doing so raises political questions, which almost never contribute to solving the problem or returning to a good relationship. In fact, I find that including everyone often suppresses unreasonable behavior. You may need to take a frank aside with an authority figure to handle a sensitive issue. That’s OK, as long as both parties return to the whole group with information appropriate to the group members’ roles.

For the truly deft, you can position your statements too. I find this handy when used sparingly in politically tough, long-term situations. Are there new people to the conversation? Are there casual readers who need to be kept informed? Are there some people on either side working against the shared relationship? Positioning a statement can help. I might say things like:

  • At the risk of being bold
  • As you know
  • Clearly you would agree that
  • As promised
  • From prior conversations
  • As we agreed

This helps frame the conversation for secondary readers, and forces the primary recipient to either declare their disagreement aloud or passively accept my assertions. This is hardball, and I’d generally avoid manipulating people, but the tool is there if it serves the better interests of your firm and your customer.

Having read all of this, you might ask why I’d go to these measures when I could just follow “The customer is always right” idea and move on quickly? Didn’t I just waste my time? Stay tuned…

Turning Around Tough Problems for Your Customers – Part 2

In my first post in this series, I talked about a situation where a disgruntled customer has escalated a problem or disagreement beyond customer service and to senior or executive-level management. We followed a process called LEAP–listening without interrupting, empathizing with the customer given the facts he or she expressed, asking clarifying questions and check-downs, and promising to produce on a way to resolve the problem. But I pointed out the fact that produce hides a lot of detail and can leave you, and your staff, in an ambiguous place about how to completely resolve the customer’s issue. So, how can you make sure your company will take the necessary steps to make things right for your customer?

My second mentor shared tools with me to expand on produce. Yes, starting each conversation with LEAP is great, but you need to change its goal to get the customer’s perspective on the problem. Work on prioritizing the customer’s feedback with him or her; what’s the biggest problem? What other problems have happened as a result? What remedy is the customer looking for and how much time do they have to allow you to reach resolution? It’s important to remember not to take sides at this stage of the process so do your best to distill the customer’s (possibly emotional) perspective down to hard facts. I’d also recommend resisting the temptation to solve complicated problems over the phone. Instead, promise to look into it in more detail and agree to a time to speak again with an update. You’re still adhering to the spirit of the produce step, but I think there’s value in  expanding on it.

Take a look at the unbiased facts you’ve established: What evidence do you have of where the issue went right and where it went wrong? Don’t prejudge and don’t assume that your firm or the customer have diagnosed the problem correctly or have a monopoly on the truth. Start with the first moment of the issue at your firm and follow it until it left your hands but be careful not to end up in an analysis paralysis, diving ever deeper into wasteful facts. Instead, sample a few key points to narrow down the underlying cause of the issue and dig into that spot–kindly challenge your staff, the data in your systems, the paperwork left behind, and any written communication. You’ll likely find things that the customer doesn’t know or didn’t share with you.

Now, let’s assess the facts: Where did the breakdown occur? What does the customer know and of what can you inform them? Where did your staff, and your customer, deviate from the appropriate course of action? List scenarios that explain what happened and eliminate those that don’t match the evidence. You may still have more than one possible scenario. What needs to be done right away to close this issue? How can we fairly make the customer whole? What processes, terms, and conditions could have prevented this?

With facts in hand, explain to your customer an unbiased account of the immediate problem and its underlying cause. Remain clinical and leave emotion out. Distinguish clearly between facts and your opinion and accept blame where it’s fairly due. Most importantly, do not lie. You’ve fixed the source of the leak, now it’s time to drain the basement. You’ve only got two problems left to solve:

First, how can we make the customer whole, immediately and fairly? You still have to solve the customer’s current problem and they’re waiting for that, more than anything else. To me, “whole” means fair to the customer and fair to your company. I find it helps to begin by establishing some principles rather than just splitting the blame. If my team had a verbal agreement about something important enough to cost money and we failed to document it with the customer in writing, then the verbal agreement doesn’t exist and I’ll side with the customer. If we followed our process correctly and the customer missed something, then I’ll suggest that the customer bear the cost to correct it with our help. If both sides made mistakes, then I’ll offer to cover my company’s cost to correct our mistake and suggest the customer do likewise. If our mistake caused a single line item on an invoice to grow more than it should have, I’ll offer to cover the difference on that one item but not to refund the whole invoice. We both follow our Terms and Conditions together, we should solve the problem together, as well.

Second, what can we both do to prevent this problem going forward? Even if the problem begins entirely with our customer’s actions, which I can’t control, I’ll still propose things we can do to watch the customer’s back in the future. That’s just part of a good working relationship. Usually, changes to both sides of an issue can keep it from reoccurring…Until training slips. So, you need to document your processes, update them, and train from your documentation. Does your customer have the power to make the preventative changes on their end? If not, discuss them with someone in authority at their company. I’ve found that customers genuinely appreciate the extra effort.

So, that’s how I often respond to tough customer issues: clarify the problem and then follow two legs: the immediate problem and prevention. But you can still get derailed…What if the customer doesn’t agree with your resolution? What if they don’t believe your remedies will solve the problem? These are the concerns I’ll tackle in my next post.

Turning Around Tough Problems For Your Customers – Part 1

How can I help a disgruntled customer?

When I started as Chief Operating Officer at an Algonquin-sister company almost seven years ago, upset customers scared me. By the time the customer called me, he or she had already exhausted any patience with my customer service team or production manager so now, not only would they bring me their original problem, which usually caught me off guard, but somehow the unsatisfactory treatment from my team compounded thing. Those calls always felt like discovering a car accident at the end of my driveway when I was already late for a vacation flight. The need for escalation stretched their trust in the rest of my staff and the delay caused by working multiple channels in order to get resolution usually meant that they’d been waiting a long time to feel “taken care of.”

Those calls also always left me wondering, how had this happened? Where did all the policies we put in place fail us and our customers? How could we have prevented this?

What does a disgruntled customer want when he or she calls?

In my experience, they’re looking for understanding, an advocate to partner with, a way to make their own customer whole, a way to save their investment and still make money, an opportunity to vent, and, sometimes, just guidance to solve the problem. By the time a problem lands on my desk, my firm has already failed the customer in some way. But, when times get tough, you have to prove your value as a partner. It’s the relationship that matters. Every problem needs to become an opportunity to improve and earn your customer’s continued trust. It’s an honor to serve your customers, even when your firm has failed them, and remember, they could have already moved on to another vendor. Take this to heart because if you don’t learn to address both your customer’s original problem and the way that your firm failed to resolve it, it will follow you to every job. Now is a good time to get better!

When I started my tenure as COO, two mentors shared advice with me. The first introduced me to an acronym “LEAP,” which stands for Listen, Empathize, Ask, and Produce. Listen means to be quiet, take notes, and let the customer tell you everything that’s on their mind. Don’t prejudge, don’t respond prematurely, and wait until the customer has finished. Then empathize, reflecting back how, given their evidence, you would feel similarly. Ask questions, to both clarify and check your facts. Then produce, telling the customer how you’ll handle the problem and follow through with them. Sounds simple, right? I found I could remember this list even when a customer jarred me. But, unfortunately, it didn’t solve all of my customer’s problems.

I found LEAP worked great at calming customers down and returning to a reasonable tone within the scope of a call. It helped my customers feel like “something” would be done after our phone call ended. But the vagueness of that “something” just set me up to fall short of expectations again. Produce was the tricky part. What if I discovered something after the call that changed my perception of the issue? What if my team or I to do exactly what I’d promised on the phone? What if it took me more time to understand the issue? LEAP leaves the resolution to one step and it fails to guide customer service. Should I deviate from our Terms and Conditions? Is this issue worth going “above and beyond?” What if there’s something I didn’t think of on the phone? How do I protect my customer and my job at the same time? What’s fair? Who’s right?

Exhale and relax. I’ll share more soon, in my next post on expanding the “P” in LEAP.

Jeff’s Guide to Managing Customer Expectations

Any reputable company will tell you that customers are your lifeblood–without them, your business can’t exist.  It’s crucial to keep them happy, and a large part of that is managing their expectations. When I first started working in this field I underestimated just how important expectation management can be to customer satisfaction but I quickly learned from my managers to always keep this idea in the back of my mind.

Imagine your experiences at various restaurants: if you’re stopping for a quick bite to eat at a fast food restaurant, you’re (typically) expecting low quality food, but you’re expecting it to arrive quickly and not put a sizable dent in your wallet. If you’re booking reservations at a Michelin star restaurant, the exact opposite would be true.  However, in both situations, it’s possible to be completely satisfied with the product and service you receive simply because of the different expectations that you started with.

Although it’s a different situation, the same concept can be applied to providing software support-a large part of how happy customers are with your company is due to the expectations that are initially set and then either met or not met on a regular basis. While it’s important to always strive to provide the highest level of support possible, it’s also extremely important to set realistic expectations. Here are a few of the things I like to keep in mind in order to better manage our customers’ expectations:

  • Consistency is key.  Providing fantastic service one day and poor service the next will frustrate your customers, since they’ve come to expect a certain standard. Making yourself available to assist a customer after normal support hours will set the expectation that someone will always be available to do provide immediate assistance, regardless of the time of day. Make sure that’s a commitment you can follow through on, every time.
  • Always mind how you word things.  Sugar coating may make things sounds better to your customers, but if it leads to the impression that you’ve promised something and failed to deliver, you’ll just end up looking bad. You should always be kind, helpful, and accommodating but don’t feel pressured to say or promise anything that you can’t back up. A temporarily frustrated customer now is better than an enraged customer in the future.
  • Make it clear what you can and can’t assist with. While always trying to help your customers as much as you can sounds like a great idea, providing partial assistance with things you’re not familiar with isn’t.  Unless you’re prepared to take full responsibility for any consequences or you’re equipped to continue assisting with that issue going forward (see the first bullet!), it’s best to have them contact the appropriate support team for help.
  • Make sure your customers are kept in the loop. This is a rather broad statement, but it’s an important thing to remember-nobody likes being left in the dark, especially when a product or service they’re paying money for is involved. Even a quick note, letting them know you’re still working on their issue, will reassure your customer that they haven’t been forgotten and are still a priority for you. Expectations for great customer service are higher than ever and, thanks to technology and social media advancements, there are a ton of quick, easy methods and tools to keep your customers “in the know.”

I highly recommend sharing these tips with new employees at any company, as they can help expedite the growth from rookie to seasoned veteran in the customer service world.  Every company has different support procedures, but these concepts should be universal whether you’re in fast food or software development.  What are some ways you’ve failed to meet customer expectations?  What are ways you try to meet them on a daily basis?