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“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
Alexander Pope


We all have expectations.

I believe it’s basic human nature and the routine of life.

We expect the sun to rise in the morning.  We expect clouds to bring rain.

As children we expect the teacher, and most any adult, to tell us what to do.  We expect that when we grow up, we’ll get a job, find a partner, maybe have children.  As adults we also have expectations.  We expect something of all the people and of every situation, every day of our lives.

One of the huge challenges in my life has been managing expectations.  Personally and professionally.  Experience has helped me get to the point where I am generally able to manage my own expectations.   “High standards, low expectations” … “high standards, low expectations” is my mantra.

But the challenge in managing the expectations of others still stands.

Especially when “others” are clients.

“Underpromise and overdeliver”, directs Tom Peters. 

If we translate this to mean that we should always set realistic goals to deliver against and try and blow past them, then I’m in.  I believe in striving for the stretch goal.  And even if we don’t quite reach it, we will have gone beyond the certain and easy accomplishment to still over-deliver.

However to my sense, there is the potential of untruth in the concept – I can always hedge my bets and tell you I am only going to deliver X, with the full knowledge that I will be delivering X+Y, so you believe I’ve provided above and beyond, when I really have only given you regular.

I’ve encountered many people who tell you they will provide their deliverable in two weeks and actually deliver it in one week, having known full well the project would take one week.  I believe this is called “covering your ass”.  I understand it, but to my way of thinking it is dishonest.

“Surprise and delight” runs the conventional wisdom of marketing.

I like the “surprise and delight” concept of delivering.  Similar to above, it implies the over-accomplishment of goals, however it may only be one element or facet of the objective or project that is overachieved.  This may be less stressful on resources/organizations and more easily and consistently achievable.

“Surprise and delight” has its own drawbacks, though.  The focus on surprising and delighting may detract from the delivering the basics as this blog post from Marketing Profs effectively argues.

Expectations are challenging

Expectations are somewhat simpler to set and define when you offer a physical product.  The anticipated product and features are clearly defined by the senses and the physical manifestation of the actual item.  The basics of does it work/work well/work consistently and what it looks like are pretty obvious.  Availability and delivery might be the factors that fluctuate.

Companies/organizations that provide services are further challenged.  While you might think you have been clear about what exactly will be provided, when, where and how, since you are only responsible for the telling and not the hearing, gaps or distortion may happen in the comprehension or individual understanding of what you have tried to convey.

For example:  mononews is a newswire service focused on lifestyle, arts and entertainment news, just approaching its second birthday.  mononews publishes press releases on its website and sends each news release to a customized list of lifestyle, arts and entertainment journalists for whom the subject of the press release is most relevant.

Up front, it’s pretty much a DIY service, you create an account, you post your release, provide information on your target journalists and you pay.   Behind the scenes, we select the journalists, based on your direction, along with our expertise and experience and we send your release directly to their e-mail box.

So we’re not only selling a service, we’re also new, and not quite the same as the other companies in our competitive set.  We want to help our clients achieve their goals so they will be happy and use our service regularly.

Sometimes, expectations are a problem.

We recently worked with a client who asked for help and we gladly provided guidance, recommendations, resource material and reviewing in order to allow her to develop her press release.  Once the release was completed, there were other requests, like interacting directly with the client to get information, which resulted in a level of discomfort because I thought what was being asked of us was going beyond the reasonable.  On the other hand, customer service is vitally important, right?

So what should we do?

Discuss and agree on expectations.

The best way of setting expectations that I am aware of is to talk about what needs to be done, accomplished, achieved or delivered.  The who, what, where and when all have to be covered and specified.

I subscribe to the “realistic” school of goal setting.  I don’t over-promise, or under-promise, I try to be realistic and deliver exactly what is promised, when it is promised and how it is promised.

Ensure that both parties have the same understanding.  While it’s sometimes daunting to provide specifics – I will provide the draft plan for your comments by Tuesday, July 10th – the deliverable and the expectation, are best clearly defined and mutually understood.

It is also important to validate the expectations of the customer.  Especially if they are moving from an existing product or service.  You need to be able to help moderate their expectations if the deliverables are going to be significantly different.

Develop boundaries, specify roles.

This is especially tough, and I’m talking from experience.  Fundamentally you want to give your client everything they ask for, say yes to every request.  You want them to be happy.  You prefer they never hear the word “No.” from your lips.  But always saying yes has consequences, often seriously impacting resources.

And there must be a balance,  a balance of effort among clients and especially between value paid and product/service provided.

Be clear, be up front.  Agree that you will do A and B but that C is not possible.  You might want to provide an explanation of why C can’t be fulfilled.

In our case, I think we should have had a conversation up front, outlining our usual service, what extras we were willing to do, and not do.  We really over-delivered for this particular client, and while that’s fundamentally a good thing, it remains to be seen if there will be a return on the investment.

Negotiate changes.

Things happen.  Shipments get delayed.  We get sick and miss a day of work.  An emergency arises.  Despite the best of intentions, good planning and hard work, it will happen that we are unable to live up to a commitment.

As soon as you become aware of the matter, let all of the people involved know:

  1. There is a problem
  2. What the problem is, specifically
  3. What is being done to address the matter
  4. When you will deliver or what the new deliverable will look like.

Sometimes you will need to negotiate.  Can the product or service be delivered in part?  Can you compromise to shorten the delay?  Can you substitute one product or service for another temporarily?


Putting things in context sometimes facilitates understanding.  If I explain that I have 200 outstanding orders, but a current production capacity of 10 items a day, then delivery in 20 days makes sense mathematically.  The customer might not be happy, but they have an understanding of the constraints and why they are impacted.

Say no.

Sometimes, and I hope it is very rarely, you just have to say, “I’m really sorry but that won’t be possible.”  And hopefully your track record is good enough to have built the equity and credibility that will make the “no” palatable.

At mononews, because we’re still fledgling and trying hard to win our clients, managing expectations is still very much a work in progress.  We’re learning every day.

Do you have any advice to share?