Nicola Watts
Are You Managing Your Customer’s Expectations?

As customers today, we’ve become increasingly demanding. We want consistently high quality products, customer service and brand experiences whenever we choose. Our expectations are in overdrive. We’re only satisfied if our expectations are met or exceeded.

Expectations are our own personal beliefs about potential future occurrences and arise from a combination of our own individual experiences and knowledge. Having expectations prepares us for future action and shapes the choices we make. But how much do our expectations shape our actual experiences? According to journalist Chris Berdik in his book “Mind Over Mind,” what we assume or expect from the world changes how we actually experience it.

We’re creatures of habit. Nearly half of our daily actions are habitual, requiring little or no cognitive effort. Consequently, a lot of our expectations about how things will taste, smell, feel or look are unconscious. They’re automatic. We don’t spend much time thinking about our expectations or considering other possibilities.

One of the things our brains are good at is anticipating future events. We needed this to survive. We decide how we’re going to behave based on the outcomes we’ve come to expect. These very expectations then shape or even alter our experience and our behaviour. Disrupt our habits, upend our expectations or make us have to think, and guess what – we get antsy!

Research by Professor Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University studied the links between dopamine, our “desire or pleasure trigger”, rewards and expectations. All we need is a cue from our environment indicating that we’re about to get a reward and dopamine floods our system. Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. But, the problem comes when an expected reward doesn’t materialise. Dopamine levels crash, and produce an unpleasant feeling akin to feeling pain.

Dopamine levels rise whenever we want something – big or small. Positive expectations increase dopamine levels. But, when our expectations no matter how small are unmet, such as traffic lights taking longer than expected to change,our dopamine levels fall and we get left feeling aggravated. We also experience a mild threat response that further reduces our mood and our ability to work effectively.



Countless scientific research studies have shown that our expectations radically shape our reality- how we think and feel about the world. From the well-documented placebo effects in medicine, to telling hotel housekeepers that cleaning hotel rooms is a form of exercise leading them to lose weight, to setting up expectations about a wine’s quality through price or a critic’s review actually changing dopamine levels when a person takes a slug. Our expectations dictate what we expect food and drink in particular to taste of, which is why when a ‘smoked salmon flavoured ice cream’ was labelled as an ‘ice cream’ it was disliked as too salty and savoury, as people expected the usual sweetness from ice cream but, when labelled a ‘frozen savoury mousse’ it was liked.

Expectations can guide how we interpret information and what we pay attention to. We pay far more attention and are more likely to remember information that’s consistent with our expectations or to information that’s clearly inconsistent! They shape how we feel about things. If we have positive expectations, then we’re happy and vice versa.

They affect how we behave. We put more effort into tasks we expect to succeed in. But, what even more interesting is that numerous scientific studies have proven over and over that there is a Rule of Expectation. This rule says that people tend to make decisions based on how others expect them to perform. We basically subconsciously conform to the stereotypes people project on us.

Think about it. We’ve all done it. Adjusted our behaviour when our boss walks into a meeting or when someone we find attractive crosses our path! When we know that someone expects something from us, then we will do our best to satisfy them in order to gain respect and likeability. We rise to meet their expectations.

A classic example is the Pavlov Dog experiments, whereby dogs were trained to expect to receive food at the sound of a buzzer which led them to salivate every time the buzzer rang.

In another, researchers at Harvard found that when teachers were told that a randomly selected group of students were expected to do exceptionally well, their expectation of these particular students rose. These students ended up outperforming their peers. Expectations quite clearly can be self-fulfilling prophecies for both humans and dogs.

Research has also shown how our brains adjust the value we see in something based on how much we expect others may value it. Much like young children, if somebody else wants it then we want it too!

Customer expectations about your brand or service are quite simply what they expect from you. These expectations are shaped by someone’s cultural background, demographic factors, advertising, lifestyle, personality, beliefs, reviews, and previous experiences with yours or similar products. We all have our own unique set of expectations and preconceptions.

These expectations are both explicit and implicit. Explicit expectations tend to be about product performance such as shelf life or free warranty and are easily identified. Implicit expectations are things customers believe are obvious, and more importantly think you know! They’re unspoken assumptions your customer has about your brand’s performance; for instance, they should get priority as they are a regular customer, or you should know their sales history with you. It all goes horribly wrong when these implicit expectations are not met. When this happens they get elevated to become explicit expectations that you apparently knew about and wilfully ignored.

They’re satisfied when there is no gap, or the gap is exceeded between what they expect and your brands actual performance. This gap is often referred to as the Customer Gap and was identified in 1985 by Parasuraman, Zeithalm and Berry as part of a model they developed to measure service quality. It is however, a tool that can be easily used across other industries. They identified five different types of gaps – do any sound familiar?

  1. The Customer gap – the gap between customer expectations and perceptions.
  2. The Knowledge gap – the gap between customer expectations and brand managements perceptions.
  3. The Policy gap – the gap between brand management perceptions and service quality specification.
  4. The Delivery gap – the gap between service quality specification and actual service delivery.
  5. The Communication gap – the gap between actual service delivery and external advertising and communication.

These highlight the key challenge with managing your customer’s expectations. You may think that you’re clearly articulating what they should expect from your brand, but it won’t necessarily be enough. Some people will make assumptions and not read or pay attention to your explanations and then be mightily disappointed when they don’t get what they expect.

For your brand to be successful you need to understand what people want and then ensure they get it in the manner they expect. Easier said than done. But, managing expectations comes down to five things:

  1. Understanding what is the expected norm or accepted practice, and doing better.
  2. Telling people explicitly what to expect – don’t assume that they will know.
  3. Listening to feedback and learn from it – it can challenge your assumptions and highlight your strengths or weaknesses.
  4. Having clarity on your customer’s needs, presenting your brand in language they understand and delivering what your customers expect.
  5. Be realistic on what you can deliver. Don’t over-manage your customer’s expectations, but do create positive expectations.

    We'd love to hear from you.