Customer service agents have many skills, but the ability to break bad news as gently, thoroughly and as diplomatically as possible has to be one of their greatest.
Think of the customer who has to be told that, no, they can’t return a product that’s been opened, fiddled with or even damaged and expect a full refund.
Then there’s the customer who mistakenly thought they could completely disregard a product’s instructions or owner’s manual and immediately master every feature.
What about the customer who somehow assumed that subscribing to the “basic” version of a service entitled them to everything that falls under the “premium” version?
These are often highly uncomfortable conversations, and they tend to start with the customer already in a state of frustration and disappointment.
They come to the company sure — and determined — that their problem will be resolved.
Instead of being able to make them happy, however, the customer service department has to clear up misconceptions, or details that the customer had never thought to ask about in the first place.
From the company’s perspective, the promises they made were kept. To the customer, however, the service interaction feels like insult has been added to injury.
When expectation meets reality and the two don’t align, the customer experience isn’t just damaged. Sometimes it means the customer’s relationship with the company ends, and they go on to share what happened with other people they know.
Of course, the customer’s family and friends will only hear their side of the story. It doesn’t matter. Negative perceptions can do a lot to influence whether people who might otherwise have brought business your way go to a competitor instead.
There’s no point in complaining about customers being unreasonable or unrealistic. Your responsibility — and priority — should be to better understand how their expectations are developed, and then figure out what you can do if they can’t be met.
Go back to your ideal customer journey. Many companies literally map these out, striating with the moment a customer first learns about a brand to when they buy something and the help they need afterwards.
Think of the customer journey as an actual trip they’re taking from one location to another. Somewhere along the way, as their expectations are being developed, it’s possible they’re driving through some fog.
This could be a piece of legalese in a contract that could be called out more explicitly, or jargon in your marketing copy that glosses over what it takes to make the most of a product or service. Maybe you’ve simply left out terms, conditions or other information and customers are filling in the blanks themselves. If so, that usually spells trouble.
Find the fog and make sure you improve the journey by replacing it with roadsigns. In other words, point them towards details that make sure their expectations are more in line with reality.
A customer experience is going to go badly if agents are only able to talk about what they can’t do. Knowing that sometimes expectations will not be met, think about some positives they could bring forward instead.
If a customer can’t return a product, for example, you can have policies that allow them to exchange it for something that is more expensive but in line with their expectations at a small discount. This involves understanding the lifetime value of you customer and whether it makes financial sense, but if it’s doable it can be an effective “make-good.”
In other cases, an agent may not be able to do much about a customer who didn’t do their homework when they were shopping around. What the agent can do, however, is point the customer to resources to make a more informed purchase next time. They could also point them to self-service tools that let them get as much value from their purchase as possible.
There may even be occasions where it makes sense to direct disappointed customers to other businesses in your industry that can deliver on expectations that you’re not prepared to meet. People just don’t want to feel like they’ve reached a dead end. If you can provide genuine help, they’ll appreciate it and possibly come back for something else on another occasion.
If the expectations vs. reality problem is an isolated incident, it may just be an issue with the customer in question. If you start to see the same situation bubbling up again and again, though, it’s time to take a closer look at the data.
Customer service departments collect some of the most valuable data in the company, and it shouldn’t be relegated to the latter stages of the journey. As you learn more about what customers expect from your products and services, explore what you could do to refine them and avoid more uncomfortable post-purchase conversations.
This doesn’t have to be a post-mortem exercise when you study the data after the fact. Think about how you could augment your customer service process to survey people about their expectations. Involve them in the process of developing products, services and experiences that reflect the reality they want to see.
You may not be able to please everyone all of the time, but paying closer attention to customer expectations and adopting a data-driven approach to responding to them will put the odds back in your favour. It may mean customers expect even more of your but that’s okay. When customer expectations escalate, that also means you have an even greater opportunity to grow your share of business with them.