Getting Ahead of Customer Expectations

It’s not enough to expect better for and of yourself. You should also anticipate more from your customers.

Sure, you should be highly invested in anticipating what they will do next, what their expectations are, and how you are going to fulfill them. But the fundamental mistake most small businesses make is believing that the product and business model they have provided is adequate for customers needs, and that customer demand can be altered through marketing and advertising.

It’s rather arrogant when you think about it.

As small business owners, we are all inherently flawed and to presume that the customer should adapt to how we want to do things is insane. Yet, customers make accommodations all the time for poor business models thereby reinforcing these false assumptions.

Getting ahead of customer expectations is the process of thinking like a customer, for the customer.

This is nothing new, but small businesses are the least equipped to embark on an unbiased exploration of consumer perspective. Nonetheless, our success depends upon understanding how buyers think, which means unlearning that what we want to do for customers is somehow more important compared to what they expect or need.

Let me share an example…

I had been invited into a large media production company to address operational issues, when I was suddenly pulled into a meeting about pricing. An Account Executive had requested a budget from one of the production teams for a video and was upset that the price they came back with was outside of “customer expectations”. The fact that the AE had not provided a budget or even asked the customer for one was curiously not a point of contention. At this point no pricing or proposal had been presented to the client. This meeting was to convince the production team to do the work for less money.

The AE had read a blog post of mine about getting ahead of customer expectations and she felt that she was doing exactly that. She was sure the customer would only spend $10,000 on the requested project and the team had developed a $15,000 budget. She was cleverly leveraging my blog to help her win this debate. The conversation went something like this:

Account Executive: “In your blog, you said that we should stay ahead of the customer and anticipate their needs.”

Me: “Yes, but didn’t my blog also say that we needed to ask what those needs are? What budget did the client give you?”

“Well, I didn’t ask – it’s our job to create the budget.”

“I see we have a semantics problem. What is the value of this project to the customer?”

“I just told you, they do not know. We haven’t told them what it will cost.”

“Then why can’t you tell them that it is $15,000 – isn’t that your team’s estimated budget?”

“I know the customer won’t go of that! It’s too much.”

“Did you and the customer have a conversation about what they were willing to spend? Were any dollar figures addressed?”

“No, but we did a project for them last year and it was about the amount of money, but it was a much bigger job. So I know that they won’t spend that this time.”

“Did you share that with the production team before they put together this comprehensive proposal?”

“Well no, but…”

This went on for a while until we agreed that our lack of information about what the customer expects would dictate a three-option proposal and an in-person presentation to close the deal. The point of sharing this awkward conversation is this: unfounded assumptions of customer expectations will adversely influence our response to customer needs.

You might not be surprised that the production team makes the same mistake in their budgeting process. Let’s look at the conversation on the other side of the table.

Me: “I know there’s more than one way to produce a video. How did you come to this price?”

Producer: “This is what it takes to do it right.”

“Were there clues in the request that indicate the customer needs this level of finish?”

“Not really. We don’t want to do schlock work and have that out there where it reflects poorly on our company. We want to be known for high-quality videos.”

“So, if the client really only has $10,000 to spend, you do not have a $10,000 solution?”

“Sure, but they won’t like it.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know…”

I wish I could say that the AE and the Producer were out of the ordinary, but alas, no. What I can say is that they both fervently believe that they are doing what is best for the customer.

By now you have probably realized that “Getting Ahead of Customer Expectations” has two meanings. The first is when we assume what the client will think as both of these characters have. Both the AE and the Producer have taken on the responsibility for interpreting what the customer wants, without properly involving the prospect. The second is the more useful interpretation, that we learn enough about the customer that we can see where their expectations are going and position ourselves there. The former assumes that the seller knows more than the buyer. The latter recognizes that no one better understands the customer than customers themselves.

Clearly this meeting was not about the customer. It was an example of the internal battles within this organization – a power struggle over who has the best interests of the customer in mind. My conclusion was that both the AE and the Producer were ignoring their responsibility to the customer by projecting their own expectations on the project.

The lesson here is that we cannot bend customers to our will. Rather, our job is to flex in order to meet their needs. Too often we set ourselves up for rejection, but then carefully engineer the timing of the rejection so that it doesn’t occur in person. How often have you sent a proposal without knowing for sure whether it met customer expectations? And did that failed proposal strengthen or weaken your position with that buyer for next time?

Tom Stimson MBA, CTS helps owners and management teams rediscover the fun and profit that comes from making better decisions about smarter goals. He is an expert on project-based selling and a thought leader for innovative business processes. Since 2006, Tom has successfully advised over two hundred companies and organizations on business strategy, process, marketing, and sales. Learn More at TRSTIMSON.COM