Friday, January 28, 2011

The burden of expectations

Customer satisfaction is a pretty easy equation, when your performance exceeds expectations, your customer is satisfied.

So why are companies so bad at this?

Well, what seems like a simple equation actually isn't because expectations are the property of each individual customer and they change based on conditions. So what you did yesterday to make a customer happy may not be acceptable to a different customer today.

A case in point, my trip to New York yesterday.

With 15 inches of new snow on the ground from an overnight storm, I half expected not to make it to the East coast at the start of the day. But checking the airlines and other flight tracking websites showed that the first leg of my journey from Milwaukee to Detroit was leaving on time, so off to the airport we went.

Even with the snow in Milwaukee we were there early enough to check our bags, negotiate security and make a quick stop for a bagel and a bloody Mary at the Sky Club before having to head to the gate for our indicated on-time departure.

And that's where the trouble began. My expectation was that there would be no trouble getting from Milwaukee to Detroit. There were only a couple of inches of snow in the area and none in Motown. The airline did nothing to communicate there would be a delay. Even the sign at the gate indicated an on-time departure, yet there was no plane at the gate 20 minutes before our flight was scheduled to take off so it was pretty clear that wasn't going to happen.

Delta was not forthcoming with information about what the problem was, when the plane might arrive or when we would be on our way, so we all had to sit in the gate area and wait.

They had the opportunity to reset expectations for us, but didn't. Thus passengers became more anxious as the delay extended. Ultimately when we did leave, I wasn't happy, but I wasn't cursing the airline either because I still had time to make my connection. The person across the aisle from me was apoplectic because he would miss his. I'm guessing he was less satisfied with the experience than I was.

Our different situations created different levels of satisfaction even though we used the exact same product.

Could Delta have satisfied everyone even with the delay and missed connections? Maybe not. But by not lying to us about the "on time" departure and offering continuous updates about the situation, by managing expectations, they would have gone a long way to making the experience more acceptable for everyone.

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