The art and science of customer expectations

The notion of 'customer expectations' is a complex subject. There is a common misconception that good customer service is all about exceeding customer expectations.

Huron proposes that emotions evoked by expectation involve five functionally distinct response systems:

  1. reaction responses (which engage defensive reflexes);

  2. tension responses (where uncertainty leads to stress);

  3. prediction responses (which reward accurate prediction);

  4. imagination responses (which facilitate deferred gratification);

  5. and appraisal responses (which occur after conscious thought is engaged).


Just have a look at that list! That is a complex panoply of dimensions all related to ‘expectations and I would suggest that the implied complexity of the ‘state of expectation in a consumer’s mind is somewhat beyond the practical understanding and control of the average sales associate – not to mention psychology professor.

There is also plenty of evidence that the notion of expectations is actually closely tied to stereotyping. Whilst I believe stereotyping is necessary and it is one of the heuristics we use daily to make sense of an exceedingly complex environment, it should also be said and understood that there are limitations and risks inherent in stereotyping.
In short, our expectation of a customer’s expectation is often formed on the basis of stereotypes. Given the complexity of ‘expectations’, we are bound to get it wrong more often than not.

But the good news is that customers don’t expect us to exceed their expectations:

  • If you order flowers for your loved one’s birthday, you would be disappointed if they delivered it a day early.

  • If you pay someone for a job that is expected to take a week and they finish in two days, you will probably feel you have been ripped off.


There are many more examples.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that in some cultures, like Australia, an overly obsessive level of attention would be considered ‘creepy’.

Our ‘everyday’ definition of marketing & customer service is to simply ‘find out what the customer wants, and give it them’.

Simple I know, but that simplicity belies the difficulty of actually delivering it. Importantly though, there is no expectation to exceed what the customer wants. Just stand and deliver on what they expect – and you will be streets ahead of the competition.