Published in Retail

The Power of Expectations

I recently stopped by for dinner at a favorite local burger joint in my hometown of Orlando, FL.  The restaurant has always had an energetic and social atmosphere, attentive service and easily the best burgers in the southeast (second only to The Vortex in Atlanta).  Upon entering, I could sense a change from the norm – nearly all the picnic-style tables were empty, the lights seemed low, the jukebox was turned down, and I didn’t recognize any of the servers with whom I’ve developed a friendship over the years.  I sat down and ordered my favorite burger – a medium rare angus beef burger on a toasted pretzel bun with, avocado, bacon, fresh jalapeno straws, and both gouda and brie cheese.  While I was very much in the mood for my burger, after eating and paying my tab I felt the experience wasn’t what I had hoped it would be, and it left me disappointed.  I learned a few weeks later that the restaurant had opened a new location and the manager and most of the staff had moved over to establish operations there.

My expectations in visiting my favorite burger joint, which had been established over many outings of great food and environment set the tone for this most recent experience.  If I had been a first-time customer, I might likely have left excited to have found the most delicious burger in town.  As a seasoned patron however, the delicious burger wasn’t enough to overcome the overall change in experience from what I knew was the norm – my expected experience.

Expectations are Foundational to Understanding the Customer’s Experience

Expectations shape a great deal of our experience as consumers of products and services.  As companies large and small work to understand the customer experience and identify areas for improvement, most fail to consider the impact of expectations.  Furthermore, the customer experience is largely shaped by the staff and employees of the organization who prepare and deliver the products and services we buy every day.  For this reason, employee expectations can be as important as customer expectations when considering changes and improvements to impact the bottom line.  Surprisingly, almost all surveys in both customer experience and employee engagement measurement programs fail to assess a respondent’s expectations, without which we fail to consider a critical component in understanding the context of an experience.

In their development of the now world-renowned American Customer Satisfaction Index (ASCI), researchers from the University of Michigan in collaboration with the American Society for Quality established that expectations are foundational to understanding a customer’s experience.  Traditionally, experience is measured exclusively by two components – process and outcomes.

  • Process measures typically focus on an assessment of a product or service itself, the organization’s delivery model, and other aspects of the business, such as environment.
  • Outcome measures include loyalty and endorsement (will the customer return and/or recommend the product or service), differentiation (to what extent does the customer feel the product or service was different from/better than other options in the market), and value (was the product/service worth the cost – including both monetary and opportunity cost).

The constructs of processes and outcomes are both critical to understanding an experience and how to improve it, and almost all traditional surveys capture information regarding the processes and outcomes of an experience.  Unfortunately, this is where they end – stopping short of asking a few additional simple questions to understand the respondent’s expectations which help frame the experience.

From a consumer perspective, the importance and impact of expectations can be seen across many well-known company slogans and even official logos.  For example, companies such as Target (“Expect More. Pay Less.”), Nissan (“Shift Expectations”), Kohl’s (“Expect Great Things”), The New York Times (“Expect the World”) and Alaska Airlines (“North of Expected”) have all embraced the impact and influence of expectations and have established a connection between the concept and their brand identity.

The Three Constructs of Expectations

Expectations themselves can be impacted by many factors, most of which fall within three main constructs: word of mouth, prior experience, and media.

  • Word of mouth from friends and family, trusted experts or the community at large can shape expectations.
  • Prior experiences, whether they be recent or dated can have the most direct impact on expectations.
  • Media, including traditional outlets such as news and print media, but now also including an ever-growing proportion of influence through social media, also have a significant impact on expectations. This source of influence can be manipulated and may vary based on the trust established between the source and the individual.

To illustrate the concept, consider the last time you stayed at a hotel.  When you reflect upon your hotel experience, generally you weren’t excited that you had a lock on the door to your room, or that you had pillows on your bed, or that you had hot water in the shower.  Hotel guests anywhere in the world would expect these items and over time they have become so basic that without them, a hotel guest would be immediately dissatisfied and likely to remember these issues most.  However, having a lock on your door, pillows on your bed or hot water in the shower these days during your stay doesn’t excite or create any memorable influence on your experience.   They are simply the most basic of expectations against which we can measure delighters and other concepts that can be used to positively shape the hotel experience.  Such delighters may be a warm cookie at check-in, complimentary room service breakfast, or your preferred newspaper at your door each morning.

Meeting Employee Expectations

While understanding customer expectations is important, what about the notion of employee expectations?  Whether we silo ourselves in the measurement of customer or employee experience, consider the connectedness and influence of each together. We must remember that just as customers have expectations, so too do employees – about the organization, their work, career growth, and supervisory relationships.  Whether they recognize it or not, employees also have an incredible responsibility to establish and uphold a positive organizational culture (which they themselves shape and can change by their collective actions every day) and are the medium through which any customer experiences this culture during the process of purchasing goods and services.  This applies in all industries and environments, even when customers don’t engage as traditional buyers or interact with employees as traditional purchasers of goods and services.

Employee expectations are shaped much like those of a consumer and can also be measured in many ways.  This data can help an organization understand first and foremost whether employees have high or low expectations of the organization.  If expectations about factors such as recognition in the workplace are low, even the most basic effort to improve employee recognition may have a significant impact once implemented.  Organizations supported by employees with high expectations may find greater difficulty in establishing and implementing ideas to improve, because the bar is set much higher.  By measuring employee expectations, an organization can understand these varied levels and work to meet and exceed expectations – if for no other reason than the simple fact that they measure and know the level of employee expectations at different points in time.

It can also be interesting to note how an organization compares to other companies in a similar industry about employee expectations.  Such comparisons are available for both the level of employee expectations within an industry and a comparison on expectations movement over time against other organizations.  Most importantly however is the internal benchmark within a single organization over time.

Understanding Expectations Leads to Increased Performance

Recognizing that employees have expectations and offering them the opportunity to not only share their experience within the organization but also the chance to convey what they expect can establish deeper insights for those tasked with establishing engagement goals and areas for improvement.  When collecting employee feedback, through a regular annual-type survey or through open listening or pulse survey strategies – consider the measurement of employee expectations to understand foundationally what employees expect as well as how you perform.  This comparison, the difference between the expectation and performance can truly be an influential tool in understanding and improving organizational culture and employee engagement.