Managing Customer Expectations and Being Picked Last

Soccer Can Be More Exciting Than Lawn Bowling

This past weekend, I joined a group of pre-teen relatives and their neighborhood buddies in a friendly game of soccer – a sport that had not yet made its way to America when I was in school, and has never been of any interest to me. Guys in shorts + lots of running = Snore-fest.

Maybe the kids sensed my underlying disregard for their sport. Maybe it was my gray hair. Or my middle-age one-pack abs. Whatever the reason, when they chose up sides, I was picked dead last, and the team that got me acted as though they had just been handed a red card. Humiliated, I took up a defensive position…assigned by a 12 year-old soccer hot shot…to keep the ball from getting near our goalie.

For the next hour, as balls whizzed past my head, through my legs and into our net, ignoring the impolite remarks from my cranky teammates, I nursed my wounded ego and considered the impact of expectations on performance and perception.

Perhaps I was playing poorly only because my teammates expected me to stink. I’ve certainly been a victim of low expectations on the golf course, where fellow hackers accuse you of “sandbagging” if you start playing better than your handicap suggests…so you quickly revert to double bogey performance.

There are a host of related studies on this subject: Students who outperform peers in tests because their teacher convinces them that they are smarter than other kids.  Patients who experience better clinical outcomes because they believe in the effectiveness of the therapy or medication. Factory workers who are more productive because their co-workers are supportive and want them to succeed.

But here’s an interesting twist: attempting to manage customer expectations can backfire.

Exceeding customer expectations may be a key to customer satisfaction, but a Journal of Marketing Research study suggests that seeking to define their expectations in advance can cause consumers to focus on the negative aspects of the purchase or experience, and to view the experience more negatively than customers whose expectations were not solicited.

The lesson here for marketers looking to measure and improve performance: Don’t ask customers to define their expectations before you deliver
the experience. Following the customer experience, ask them if, how and why it met their expectations.

The lesson for middle-aged, aspiring weekend soccer stars: Avoid the humiliation of being picked last. Buy a whistle, make yourself permanent
referee, and call ridiculous fouls on all those pimply neighborhood kids.

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