Managing customer expectations

That’s it. Christmas is ruined.

The whole thing’s off. I’m going to go and sit in a corner and sulk for the next two weeks.

And all for the sake of some turkey!

Allow me to explain…

Last Friday we had our Christmas meal. For the last four years or so, we’ve gone to Pelham House in Lewes, and been very happy indeed with the food and service.

But last year there was some confusion about whether we were having their Christmas menu or their standard lunch menu. All was sorted out, but to avoid the chance of something similar happening again, and knowing that a lot of the team wanted a traditional Christmas lunch, organiser-in-chief Nikki checked when she booked in October that turkey would be on the menu and that it was clear we were going for our Christmas meal, not just a “normal” lunch. She was reassured that it would be.

You can probably see where this is heading…

So, we arrive in time for a drink in the bar, and thought it would be a good idea to have a look at the menu and choose what we were having before we went through to our table. Menus were eventually found and handed round and yes, there it was, first choice on the mains; Turkey with all the trimmings. Phew.

Everyone – and I mean literally everyone – chose turkey. Good job they had it, eh?

We went through to the table and our waitress handed out menus to everyone (even though we had a handful from the bar). It was then we realised there was a problem. The menus were different. On the menus we’d been given at the table, there was NO TURKEY.

What was going on?

The waitress didn’t seem to know, so we had to speak to her supervisor, who informed us the turkey was off – they hadn’t had their delivery that morning.

Well, we weren’t best pleased as you can imagine, and although we still had a great time – I’m not going to let a bloody turkey ruin our Christmas do – it did put a bit of a dampener on the whole thing. Not only that – at home it’s a tradition that we don’t ever have turkey at Christmas, so that was my one and only opportunity gone…

Where am I going to get my turkey dinner now..?

Possibly my last chance of having turkey this Christmas *sob*

Avoidable

To be fair to Pelham House, they did deal with our complaint pretty well, were extremely apologetic, and knocked a fair bit off the bill, but who wants to have to complain at your Christmas meal?

The daft thing is, of course, that I wouldn’t have been so bothered if we’d not expected to be able to have turkey in the first place. If for instance we’d been told that morning, or when we arrived, or even when we asked for the menu in the bar, that the turkey was off, I don’t think it would have been so much of a problem.

The problem was that the experience didn’t meet our expectations.

Managing your customer’s expectations

A vital part of running a successful creative agency is in building good relationships with your clients. One of the most important ways you can do this is by managing expectations.

The turkeygate incident prompted me to share what I believe is the right way to manage your customer’s expectations through a project.

The quite marvellous Birgitte Woehlk from Design Bridge says

“Good client servicing is like a magic trick that you watch again and again to work out when it’s happened – but you always miss it because it’s already happened.”

…and she makes a good point; it can be hard to put your finger on exactly when it happens and how.

I’ve identified 14 steps I believe you need to follow to make sure you manage your customer’s expectations brilliantly:

  1. Make customer service part of the culture
  2. Build relationships early
  3. Explain what you’re going to do, right at the start
  4. Share the client’s goals
  5. Agree how you’re going to communicate
  6. Be clear about money
  7. Document the plan
  8. Have a timetable
  9. Set clear follow up actions
  10. Be prepared to say no
  11. Look down the road
  12. Don’t hide problems
  13. Put yourself in their shoes
  14. Communicate, communicate, communicate

1. Make customer service part of the culture

First up, you need to make great customer service central to how you work. This has to start at the top and managers must lead by example. Get everyone on the team on the same page. Put looking after the customer central to what you do. Think, how can we make this customer love us?

2. Build relationships early

Introduce people involved in the project as early as is appropriate and explain their roles to the client. You can’t beat meeting someone face-to-face, but if that’s not practical, a telephone introduction is a good second best. Encourage anyone present in a meeting to not just observe – they need to get involved to find out what people are like. You also need to know who needs to be involved in the project from the client’s side; who’s in charge, who needs to sign things off, and who’s doing the detail (like providing the content for a website or a piece of printed work).

Get everyone involved in the project to meet as early as you can.

3. Explain what you’re going to do, right at the start

At your kick-off meeting, go through the whole process in summary, so everyone sees the whole picture. Don’t go into too much detail; your client will probably forget, and they only really need to know detail about what’s coming up next. Give your customer the reassurance they’ll be kept up to speed all the way through the project, and explain who’ll be doing that role (it’s ok if it’s more than one person).

4. Share the client’s goals

Make sure everyone on the creative team understands the inspiration and reasons for doing the project. Don’t forget they might not have been party to the early conversations that started it all. Give everyone on the team as much background as they need to really understand what the client’s trying to do.

5. Agree how you’re going to communicate

Meetings or phone calls are often more effective than emailing, but what’s the availability of your client going to be like? If they’re super-busy (and they usually will be), you need to agree on an alternative. What about other stages of the project, like information- or content-gathering? Set up online access to shared files or file storage that everyone can get to.

6. Be clear about money

You need to get over yourself and be clear and transparent about money. Explain at the start what factors impact the budget for the project and under what circumstances you’d need to review it. This prevents scope creep and establishes an open and honest relationship.

7. Document the plan

For something like a web project or design brief, you need to create a document, otherwise someone WILL forget what’s been agreed. For web projects, we create what we call a Project Plan – it covers the overall aims of the project and goes into enough detail for everyone involved to be able to refer back to it at any point. It avoids confusion or misunderstanding later on down the road. Make it available to everyone and make sure you keep on top of version control so you know you’re all working from the latest copy.

8. Have a timetable

Create a timetable as soon as you know the scope of the project, and schedule the work in to a diary or calendar. Provide key milestones so the customer sees – and can keep track of – progress. You need to be 100% that you can hit the stage deadlines you’ve set up, so be generous if you need to, and don’t be bullied in to something unrealistic – that’s just asking for trouble. Highlight any deadlines the customer needs to meet, and talk about anything that might impact this. Try to keep the timetable as flexible as you can – you need to accept the project might not be the client’s no. 1 priority.

9. Set clear follow up actions

At the end of a meeting or a phone call or even an email, clearly set out what’s going to happen next and who’s responsible. In an email, you might even want to list the actions under a heading “What happens next” to make it more obvious to the client.

Stand up for yourself.

10. Be prepared to say no

I don’t like confrontation – never have, even when I was a kid – but you need to draw the line early, cos it’s much harder to move it later. If you need to say no to something, you’ve got to do it. Stand up for yourself, even if it makes the conversation a bit more awkward. Explain your reasons for saying no, and consider how you say it to avoid sounding like you’re just being difficult. Most clients are pretty reasonable people.

11. Look down the road

Although your customer doesn’t need to know all the details of every stage, YOU need to look down the road to anticipate any issues and plan ahead for them. If time needs to be put in to meet a stage deadline, don’t leave it til the last minute – work back from the deadline and put smaller steps in place early.

12. Don’t hide problems

If something crops up, talk to the client about it as soon as you can. Be open and honest with your customer; this creates trust. However, don’t go to your customer with the problem – tell them what you’re planning to do about it and have an idea or solution in place. If the timetable needs to change, tell the customer as soon as you can.

Always under-promise and over-deliver.

13. Put yourself in their shoes

Client’s have their own worries and priorities which can impact on the project. It’s hard sometimes not to get frustrated, but you need to try and see things from their point of view. Before you make decisions, think about how it’ll make them feel. It will help you understand where they’re coming from, and how you can work with them to get the best result. Always consider how you can under-promise and over-deliver.

14. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Good communication is the key to everything. However you choose to do it, the more you can keep the client up to date about everything the more reassured they’ll feel. Make yourself available to talk things through, and don’t duck the more difficult conversations.

After all, you don’t want someone writing a blog post about the bad experience they had with you, do you? ;o)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pop out to see if I can buy a turkey sandwich for my lunch.

Have a wonderful Christmas!

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Mark Vaesen

About Mark Vaesen

Mark Vaesen is the Founder and Managing Director of Tomango. He previously founded Blue Planet and is also a Uefa B qualified football coach. He loves cheese and biscuit and raisin Yorkies. Although not at the same time; that would be weird.

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