Setting Expectations

After ending yet another phone call with some customer support, I realized how much every interaction with another human being is characterized by the expectations at both sites. Being an optimist and despite better knowledge I still go into each conversation with customer support expecting to get my issues quickly resolved.

Here is how it went today:

The reason for calling was a missing item that was supposed to arrive two days ago.

Joe: [the introduction takes about 5 minutes with all the pleasantries and cross-checks to confirm it’s really me, he asks for the problem and checks the order number] When did you order?

Alex: On Monday

Joe: You know, delivery can take up to 10 business days depending on the shipping method you choose. What method did you choose?

Alex: Over night express

Joe: Ah, I see. [hectic keyboard noises] So…. you ordered on Monday?


Joe: This week?

Alex: [calmly] Yesss

Joe: One Moment please. [after 5 minutes someone with a totally different voice returns] Can I ask you to please give me the order number?

Alex: Who are you?

Joe (?): My name is Joe. Your order number can be found in the confirmation email.

Alex: [slightly confused, give him the order number] I ordered on Monday with overnight express shipping.

Joe (II): Thank you.  One moment please [another 5 minutes later during which I returned to answering emails] Can you please confirm your address and phone number?

Alex: [little confused] Sure

Joe (II): Yes?

Alex: I mean, I can confirm it.

Joe (II): What is your address and phone number?

Alex: [Giving him the requested information and then trying to be logical] If the order is not in your system, then I assume it is faster when I just place another order and have my item by tomorrow morning.

Joe: One moment please.  [simply leaves for another 3 min. Back comes another new voice] Hello, Alex

Alex: Hi, are you Joe?

Edward: No, I am Edward [pleasantries and apologies, etc.] I understand your order did not arrive?

Alex: No, it didn’t.

Edward: When did you place your order?

Alex: Is my order in your system?

Edward: One moment please. Can you please tell me when you ordered it?

Alex: On Monday, overnight express shipping. I am happy to place another order if that is the easiest solution.

Edward: Unfortunately I cannot recommend that, because we need to get the order out of the system first. Otherwise, you may get billed twice.

Alex: It seems you can’t find the order, so it may not even exist. I am wondering how your system would create an invoice if nothing shows up under my address or my name? But I happily take the risk and deal with a possible duplicate invoice later, because I urgently need the item. Thank you for your help, I will hang up now. Goodb…

Edward: One moment please, I need to escalate the conversation to my supervisor. [interesting choice of words. At this moment I wonder how this conversation may further escalate. Reluctantly, I decide to stick around just a little bit longer] Hello Andrew, I was informed you received the wrong item last week…

[I generally try to avoid two things (among others): One is being rude and the other is wasting time. I was tempted to just hang up at this point, but as I realized that would obviously have been my declared defeat. Since we have to go through purchasing agents for each order at my work, I decided this moment to only hang up after I got what I wanted. To my surprise, resolving everything didn’t take more than 10 minutes from there]

I am not posting this conversation to bash the customer service of this company, which I won’t name here. Their customer service is usually better. But I want to use it to make an argument for transparency and honesty, because as a customer I want to know what to expect. I would have been much less confused if Joe would have let me know right at the beginning that he cannot find my order in the system and is trying to locate it, which may take some time.

I am sure you have you own stories about weird or unsatisfying experiences with customer support. The call just made me realize again how satisfaction depends almost more on my initial expectation than on the actual experience. I am still waiting to see a company declaring on their support site: “Please expect a difficult and potentially unsatisfying conversation that leads nowhere. Have a great day!” or “Warning: Automated phone center! Don’t expect to speak with a human in less than ten minutes“.

To make it short and simple: I strongly believe clients deserve to be told what to expect. They will feel taken seriously, be happier in the end, and value the honesty. If you think you may lose customers if you tell them about difficulties or services you don’t cover then think about these examples:

1) Most visitors are planning to come back to Disneyland despite the often enormous lines.

2) This example is mentioned in the book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be  Persuasive: Colleen Szot, author of uncounted infomercials changed the line “Operators are waiting, please call now” to “If operators are busy, please call again“. Interestingly this increased sales dramatically although it made calling sound like a hassle. Why? Because busy lines indicate high demand and high demand delivers the social proof for a  product worth buying.

3) Another attraction with notoriously long lines is Madame Tussaud’s in London. Just like inside Disneyland there are signs that indicate the expected wait time from several points. Thirty minutes, an hour and even one and a half hours don’t prevent the lines from forming. If you get in line at this point there is no reason for you to be upset about the long wait when you finally get in.

4) I once had to stand in line for a pub with the sign “We don’t serve food. No good story starts with someone eating salad“.

Toyota stock prices

Toyota Stock Prices 2010-now. Source:

5) Think about the many recalls for auto vehicles (see, which rarely ever really harm the brands. In the long run they are trust building measures. Take Toyota for example. Did the recall of more than eight million cars between in 2010 and 2011 destroy the company? If we take the stock prices as indicator for the performance of the company, then Toyota seems to do better than ever. Of course, this development is due to actions of the Toyota management after the recalls, but obviously the current consumers are not negatively affected by them.

What do you think? Is setting expectations ahead of time to avoid tedious discussion later the right strategy? Did you have an interesting customer support experience lately? On either side of the line? Leave your comments below or send me an email.



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