Passikoff: Chasing Customer Expectations

If you’re looking to be the brand that exceeds customer expectations but don’t have a real fix on what those expectations are . . .

“We want to exceed your expectations.”

How many times have you read that in an email or online screen asking you to review a product or an experience or a brand? I’m betting a lot. It seems like a nice thing to tell customers. It’s a statement a brand makes to show they’re concerned about your needs. Something indicates that they didn’t disappoint you. That they’re interested in fulfilling your desires and dreams. You know, “expectations.” It’s a nice thing to do. They’re concerned. For you.

And I’m really sorry to disappoint you, but it’s a phrase that’s lost a good deal of meaning over the past decade. Why do I say that? Well, here’s something to think about. How do the brands know? How do brands know what you expect?

They know what you don’t expect. You don’t expect to drink a cola or eat Mexican-inspired food and get salmonella. You don’t expect the door handles to fall off your car when you drive over a pothole. You don’texpect to have checks bounce when there’s money in your account and/or you have overdraft protection.

Those are the things you don’t expect. Those are things you assume and those mostly have to do with rationalcategory values. “Price-of-Entry” stuff. “Table Stakes.” You know, the kind of things that if they didn’t do them, brands wouldn’t be able to compete in their categories. It turns out – beyond primacy-of-product – what consumers do expect is mostly emotional. And because it’s mostly emotional, real customer expectations – the ones brands want to exceed – move at the speed of the consumer, faster than brands can keep up, no matter how many times brands tell you they want to exceed your expectations.

How do we know that for sure? We looked at the world’s largest, most-continuous database of predictive brand engagement and loyalty tracking metrics. That would be our 25-year, 4.3 million customer assessment, 1,624 brands in 142 categories databank. Since 1997, Brand Keys has conducted our annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI). We just released it yesterday. If you want to see which brands did best at meeting customer expectations there’s a list here.

Our 2022 Silver Anniversary edition added an additional 88,126 interviews to this tracking archive and revealed two incredible brand certainties:

  1. There’s been a radically widening gap between customer expectations and brands’ abilities to meet (let alone exceed) expectations, and
  2. The consumer decision-process has become extraordinarily more emotional.

Expectations have seen a 40% net increase since 1997. Meaning, exactly what consumers expect, beyond the primacy-of-product thing, has increased to a mindbogglingly high level. To be precise, that’s 40% across all categories. Expectations get a lot higher in categories like Electronics, Technology, and Social Networking, where this year’s expectation inflation reached 50%, 52%, and 57% respectively. But be of good heart. Maybe your category is more manageable, and your brand does exceed expectations. I’m going to have to disappoint you there. Expectations move up every year and brand, on average, only manage to keep up by 10-12%, most leaving an awfully, awfully big gap between consumer desire and brand delivery. So that “exceeding expectations” aspiration? Not so much.

Expectations, the ones that matter, are mostly emotional. In this year’s Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, the average ratio of emotional values to rational values that drive expectations was 80:20. To be clear, that was 80% emotional. Consumers aspire for what they envision à la their category Ideal and they aren’t just going to take your word that you know what they really expect just because you say so.

Consumers use their Category Ideal as a metaphorical yardstick to determine how well brands measure up to their expectations. Brands that can measure up, see success. The brands that don’t, don’t. Expectations are leading-indicators of consumer behavior. Oh, and their real Ideal can’t be divined by just asking. Or via a 5-star rating scale. That’s good for the rational stuff, but as that only accounts for 20% of the consumer’s decision process, you’re not going to have an easy job “exceeding” their expectations of you only rely on one-fifth of what drives consumers’ feelings and your brand’s fortunes.

Which is why there’s a psychological component to our analytics. Remember that you can’t do that “by just asking” advice in the previous paragraph? Well, you can’t. You need to get below the consumer’s conscious radar. How well brands can meet a Category Ideal’s expectations have been independently-validated to predict how consumers will behave toward the brand. In-market action translates to loyalty, which translates to sales, which translates to, well, you get the idea.

Serendipitously, an expectation gap represents an area of opportunity for a brand. But only if they can identify the values that will best help the brand actually meet real customer expectations. Sorry, but if you insist on “wanting to exceed expectations,” you need to understand what they are first, then do things to over-deliver against them.

It was Alexander Pope who said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” But if you’re looking to be the brand that exceeds expectations but don’t have a real fix on what those expectations are. . .

Well, I’m afraid you’re in for a real disappointment.

Robert PassikoffRobert Passikoff is founder and CEO of Brand Keys. He has received several awards for market research innovation including the prestigious Gold Ogilvy Award and is the author of 3 marketing and branding books including the best-seller, Predicting Market Success.  Robert is also a frequent contributor to TheCustomer.


Photo by Andy Beales on Unsplash.

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