What’s better – meeting expectations or exceeding them?

November 25, 2014


I guess the PC response to the above question is the latter but the recent completion of another customer feedback survey provides further confirmation that this is not the case.untitled

The client, in this instance, was a manufacturer and as is usual in these surveys, we asked their customers to rate the importance to them of “Order lead-time” and “Delivery-on-time”. In order to ensure consistency of interpretation, a sentence of definition was read out to each respondent after each attribute had been tabled.

The one for “Order lead-time” read as follows:

“How important to you is the time that elapses between order placement and order delivery?”

and the one for “Delivery-on-time” –

“How important is it that the products ordered arrive at the time you were given to expect?”

Out of the 15 supplier attributes measured, “Delivery-on-time” was in third position in the hierarchy with Order lead-time in ninth place. Of course, what constitutes “Delivery-on-time” will vary from industry to industry and market to market. At one end of the spectrum, we have auto industry production lines where delivery-on-time is measured in minutes to custom made furniture or ship building where delivery within the month forecasted would meet the client’s expectations.

As consumers, we constantly wrestle with these two variables. Would we prefer the dry cleaners to tell us that an item for cleaning will be ready next day at 9.00am – and it is – or promise us an hour’s turnaround time – and we sit in the shop for 15 minutes while the item is finished off? Would we prefer a 10.00am appointment with our GP – and we barely have time to select a magazine before we are called – or one at 8.30am the same day when our doctor is running 30 minutes late? Would we welcome the plumber who turned up a day earlier than agreed?

Yet despite the evidence to the contrary, my experience is that the majority of management teams place greater emphasis on reducing lead-times with the inevitable result that delivery sometimes meets the customer’s expectations and sometimes not. “If I know that the order turnaround time is two weeks, I can plan around that. I would rather be told Friday am and the supplier meets that expectation than promised Tuesday and the supplier delivers a day late”.

Indeed for many customers and clients delivering before the expected time is just as bad as delivering after. Take a transport company that delivers containers from the wharf. Delivering in the morning instead of the afternoon as promised could be a real headache for the customer if they have hired labour to unload it – or a supplier delivering a dangerous chemical earlier than expected and thereby exceeding the customer’s dangerous chemical storage licence.

The one downside about meeting expectations is the phenomenon of “expectation creep”. We see this consistently with organisations that have undertaken a series of customer feedback surveys with us. If our client establishes a reputation for delivering-on-time then even though the incidence of late deliveries represents an ever smaller percentage of the total, the performance rating for this particular attribute might nevertheless stay static at best and at worst even decline. Based on past performance, customer expectations have risen and whilst our client’s performance has also improved, a gap starts to appear between expectation and the customers’ perception of reality. Expectation creep is also driven by the fact that the customer’s rating is based on a comparison between the supplier’s current and past performance rather than that between the supplier and one of its competitors.

I always cringe when I read a Mission statement that includes the platitude of “exceeding our customers’ expectations”. That’s not what customers want. They want their suppliers, whoever they may be, to consistently meet their expectations. As for “under promise and over deliver” just shorten that to “promise and deliver – consistently”.



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