I find that I am often more disappointed by expensive goods and services than I am by lower-priced ones. My expectations are inflated when I pay a high price, but I have few expectations when I pay a lower one. If a top-of-the-line product or service doesn't work as I had hoped, I often think, "At that price I really expected something better." But if something is disappointing at the other end of the scale, I'm likelier to think, "Oh well, I guess you get what you pay for!"
Customer surveys often ask: "Did we meet your expectations?" If the response is in the affirmative, the company may conclude that they must have done a good job—which may not necessarily be the case. Consider a situation where a customer who had a bad prior experience comes in with very low expectations. When a client anticipates that service will be lousy and that's precisely what they get, then technically their expectations have been met.
The key is to set realistic customer expectations, and then to not just meet them but to exceed them—preferably in unexpected and helpful ways. Setting customer expectations at a level that aligns with consistently deliverable customer service requires that your whole staff works in harmony with your brand image.
When there is no alignment, chaos can ensue. In commercial aviation, the big, long-established carriers, often still referred to as "full-service" airlines, set themselves up for failure by continuing to oversell their services, even though they ceased to provide great service long ago. Their passengers have higher expectations than when they pay an identical fare for the same trip on a low-cost carrier.
Meanwhile, the low-cost carriers have done a very good job of setting expectations as they reinvent short-haul flying. Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary and his team are unapologetic about their decision not to provide many traditional perks. What their customers do get, in exchange for consistently low fares, are basic flights on clean, well-maintained aircraft that usually leave on time.
At Virgin America, we try for a different model. We also provide clean, comfortable planes for our passengers, but we try to surpass travellers' expectations by offering better entertainment, good food and more comfortable seats. For the past five years, the airline has consistently won customer service awards.
Pricing is only one way to exceed expectations. The other is through front-line employees. Surpassing expectations of service means that your people understand what your brand stands for, that they are proud of it and will go the extra mile to make sure that your customers are happy.
Doing things better doesn't have to cost more—what it takes is a little creativity and attention to hiring, training and management. To achieve consistently terrific customer service, you must hire wonderful people who believe in your company's goals, habitually do better than the norm and who will love their jobs; make sure that their ideas and opinions are heard and respected; then give them the freedom to help and solve problems for your customers. Rather than providing rules or scripts, you should ask them to treat the customer as they themselves would like to be treated—surely the highest standard.
Your managers will have to be sure to provide in-depth training for new front-line employees. At the most basic level, you'll need to be sure that new hires use the product or service and then have the experience of asking for help from your staff. Understanding the experience from the customer's point of view will give them great insight into their new jobs—and sometimes longtime employees might benefit from a refresher, too.
With any new business opportunity, deliberately move your customers' expectations up a few notches and over-deliver on your promises. Your competitors will struggle to catch up.
Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and the founder of the Virgin Group of companies.
Originally published in Canadian Business.