I received an email from a reader by the name of Alex Anderson writing about an article he read in the Washington Post. Apparently the folks in DC had a few serious snowfalls last year (by their standards any way), and a few of the taxpayers were not particularly pleased with the work the city did in clearing the streets. What caught Alex' eye was a quote from a Department of Transportation official named John Lisle who said,"One of the lessons learned from last year was to manage expectations". Alex pointed out in his email to me, "I assume that most taxpayers didn't expect the response to their dissatisfaction over poor service last year was that they had to lower expectations."
This business of 'managing customer expectations' is troubling to me. Consider, for instance, the water pump going out on my car. I trot on down to the auto parts store hoping to get one, only to be told that the pump is not a stock item and they will get one for me in three days. Three days later I go in and pick it up.
I wanted a water pump that day – not three days later. The auto parts store 'managed my expectations' when they explained their stock/non-stock situation and gave me no choice but to change my expectation from getting one right away to getting one in three days. But no mistake should be made, however, that I was happy about having to change my expectations. 'Managing customer expectations' is never the same thing as achieving customer satisfaction.
I see this in play at more manufacturers than not who tell me they are 90whatever percent on time in their deliveries. A little probing, however, usually uncovers the fact that they are 90whatever percent on time to their promised delivery date – not the customer's request date. Applied to my water pump scenario, that is the equivalent of saying they are 90% on time coming through on their three day promise. It doesn't even attempt to address how well they did to my need for a water pump immediately.
Certainly we have to be honest with our customers and give them bad news when we cannot meet their needs. But, to use Alex' words, telling them to "lower their expectations" of us is a singularly bad idea. We need to accept the reality that we failed to meet their needs this time – then get to work figuring out how to give them exactly what they want next time. The lesson the snow plowers in DC should have learned was not to "manage customer expectations" but to devise ways to plow the streets faster.
Perhaps my concern arises from feeling uneasy whenever I hear the word 'manage' and 'customers' in the same sentence. One dictionary definition of 'manage' includes "to handle, direct, govern, or control" – not things we want to do with customers. It offers up "manipulate" as a synonym for 'manage'. It should make all of us squirm a bit to consider directing, controlling and manipulating customers. Bob Chapman, CEO at Barry-Wehmiller, doesn't even use the word"manage' in describing how employees are led in his company for the same reason. I can't begin to imagine what he would think about a strategy to "manage customer expectations" or anything else related to customers.
Thanks for the email Alex.