Thought leadership

The Golden Rules to The Six Pillars: Expectations

Insights from the KPMG Nunwood Customer Experience Excellence Centre

“The first step in exceeding your customer’s expectations is to know those expectations.”   Roy Hollister Williams

It is widely accepted that exceeding customer expectations is key to customer satisfaction, delight, and loyalty. Accordingly, it is critical for organisations to try to find out in advance what their customers’ expectations are, because a failure to meet or exceed those expectations could lead to dissatisfaction and defection.

Expectations are pre experience beliefs about how a product or service will be delivered that serve as a standard, or reference point, against which the performance of an organisation will be judged. Knowing what the customer expects is the first and possibly most critical step in delivering great experiences.

In a world where expectations are a moving target, accurately setting and then meeting expectations has to become a core competence. Consequently world class organisations pay attention to two things, how expectations are formed, and then, how they meet those expectations.

Amazon, for example, strives to ensure that they deliver products within three days. They set the expectation and then use a range of delivery methods to exceed it. However – worst case, they meet the expectation they have set.

When Zappos first started trading they had a choice, invest in advertising or invest in the experience and drive word of mouth. They chose the latter really wowing their customers by shipping products by air overnight. Customer’s expectations were for a three day delivery, in actual fact if they ordered before midnight they were likely to get their products by 8.00 am the following morning. Zappos didn’t reveal how they achieved this miracle and their customers, duly excited, told their friends and colleagues about this amazing service, fuelling the Zappos word of mouth marketing strategy.

Expectations can be set explicitly or implicitly. Some brands such as motoring rescue company Green Flag (we get to you within 60 minutes or 50% off your next premium) and Premier Inn (a great night’s sleep or your money back) embed achieving the expectation in their brand promise. IBIS hotels guarantee to resolve any issue you may have with the service received in the hotel within 15 minutes or your stay is free. For other organisations the expectations are set implicitly, Ritz Carlton for example deliver on multiple small expectations knowing that cumulatively these add up to the brand promise, “where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission.” In fact, at Ritz Carlton, managing each individual guest’s expectations is a science and provides the basis for a highly personalised service to its customers.

In each hotel within the chain, a special organisation exists called guest recognition. This special function uses the CLASS database to remember over 800,000 guests and generate information for all appropriate staff. It stores likes/dislikes; previous difficulties; family interests; personal interests; preferred credit card; frequency of stay; lifetime usage/amount of purchase. In this way staff are able to understand what is ‘new or different’ about an individual customer. Staff carry special notebooks to capture insight on each guest and then input the information into the database. It ensures that Ritz Carlton is able to continually meet and often exceed their guest’s expectations. They call it the Ritz Carlton mystique.

Great organisations manage both explicit and implicit expectations. In particular they focus on how expectations are formed and develop their strategies accordingly. They ask themselves the following questions:

  • How does word of mouth shape expectations?
  • What are the explicit and overt promises or commitments that we can make to our customers?
  • What are the small ways in which we set expectations day to day? Do we set expectations accurately?
  • What are the intensifiers – those things that load our customer’s expectations with emotion (e.g. a customer who rushes into B&Q for materials to fix a burst water pipe has a set of heightened expectations which will not be present when he returns two weeks later to look at garden furniture).
  • Who is setting our customer’s expectations for service? What do we need to do to respond?



Not all expectations are equal. Organisations have choices about the expectations they meet, the expectations they exceed and how they might delight the customer. In many instances, a customer will have a range within which their expectations can be met. For example when waiting for a phone to be answered some customers will be willing to wait for 60 seconds and their satisfaction will not change if the phone is answered within 120 seconds. This is known as the zone of tolerance and is vital for planning response times and optimising resources


The Science

Our brains love expectations! As human beings we are programmed to be continually predicting the future. It is what keeps us safe. We expect a sabre tooth tiger to act in a certain way, a wasp to sting us and an axe wielding madman to present a particular danger.

Expectations are how we make sense of the world and understand what will happen next. Daniel Kahneman describes how our brains have two systems which view the world through our network of expectations. System one is our monitoring system, it enables us to operate on automatic for much of the time. As long as everything meets our expectations. We can do things without consciously thinking about them. However when our expectations are not met system two is activated which brings the failure to meet the expectation to our explicit attention. It activates our emotions and we become fearful if we can no longer accurately predict what will happen next.

Consequently, we like it when things happen the way that we expect them to. We like it even more when we’re not sure that things will happen the way that we expect and they happen that way anyway. We particularly like it when our expectations are exceeded in a pleasurable way.

This is why expectations are such a vital part of customer experience.

The Golden rules

Set my expectations accurately

Appliances Online (AO) is a good example of an organisation that manages expectations very skilfully. As long as you order before 7.00pm at night they will deliver the following day at a time slot of your choosing. Their approach to expectation management is carefully orchestrated. Setting and meeting the logistical expectations of the customer is the first step, the way in which they deal with the customer, the care they take and the friendliness of their people then exceeds expectations leading to a delighted customer.

Agree timings with me

Being clear on the plan and what the customer needs to do is vital to successful expectation management. AO have been successful because they are absolutely clear on timings and requirements of the customer. Being able to set a convenient time is a key first step.

Respond more quickly than I anticipate

A rapid response to queries, issues or complaints is what customers expect. They think that the company should see the situation from their perspective and act accordingly. Rapid response is a hygiene factor rather than a delight factor. It provides reassurance that the company takes the situation seriously.

Use plain English – no jargon

The language used is also very important. Vague promises lead to frustration. Clear promises such as those made by Green Flag and Premier Inn establish the ground rules from the outset. Customers have become adept at spotting obfuscation and hidden get outs.

Fulfil or exceed your promises

Failing to meet an overt promise is worse than not making a promise at all. As we have seen in resolution AO have a process for dealing with customers when it is just not possible for them to meet their promise. Respondents to our survey talked about receiving delivery pizzas when a cooker could not be delivered, or receiving Baby Grows when a new washing machine could not be delivered to a new mother. Overcoming a failure to meet an expectation by then exceeding the expectation.

Guide me through the process

By guiding the customer carefully through the process expectations can be accurately set and then delivered against. Customers often have no idea how long it might take to meet their objective. A process that sets expectations ensures the organisation is not caught out.

For more Golden Rules to The Six Pillars take a look at: PersonalisationIntegrityResolution, Time and Effort and Empathy.

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