Monday, October 5, 2009

Great vs. Proper Expectations

Poor Pip! Getting his expectations dashed again and again. Dickens understood the rarity of achieving grand expectations. So many of us in business want to set grand expectations on behalf of our customers that we do so without contemplating what will be necessary to deliver on our brand or product promises.

Establishing great expectations in the minds of customers only to dash them again and again is setting ourselves up for failure. The concept is similar to what Alan Greenspan termed "irrational exuberance." Setting an escalating set of expectations where little or nothing is actually delivered is in fact asking customers or clients to suspend disbelief and act in an irrational manner to continue to buy into a dream with little or no actual evidence.

Someone I admire reminds me often to "under promise and over deliver." I've heard that time and again in my career--as an excuse to pad numbers, to extend product development time lines, or to justify when a product that is really poor is "good enough."

The Bible's parable of the two sons, found in Matthew 21:28-32, does a great job of setting the table for this marketing principle:

But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ He answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind, and went. He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but he didn’t go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said to him, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into the Kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward, that you might believe him.

Brands that make promises they cannot keep disappointing their customers and don't meet the expectations of those who want to believe in them. Nearly every brand or product is able to "talk the talk" of what people want to hear. But brands that get caught up in superlatives and ever-increasing promises are LEAST likely to satisfy the needs of their clients or customers. Why? Because they make too many promises.

Let's face it: most of us can only do two or three things extremely well. Very few are the renaissance men who can fence, write fine poetry, calculate the circumference of the earth, as well as sing and dance professionally. Yet we are more than willing to make those types of claims for some of the products we sell.

The following is a list of 10 recommendations to help anyone avoid the trap of over promising and under delivering:

  1. Describe your product as it really is and not as it will be. I just love how people issue press releases with "forward looking statements" in an effort to create noise in the marketplace. If you can't sell what you say you have, you don't have it.
  2. Don't pre-announce a product or service. Although you may find an exception or two, such as dispelling rumors or announcing progress on a public program, prematurely announcing a product or service is like crying wolf and creates a "sigh" on the part of those who are awaiting the real news. Also, pre-announcements often decrease the novelty of the actual release of a product or service. A good rule of thumb is to only announce a product or service you can link to or actually sell.
  3. Avoid superlatives. Very rare is the product that is actually demonstrably the fastest, best, longest-lasting, or even most recommended. These terms can easily be replaced by lesser terms, such as: great taste, less filling, excellent value, speedy, etc. Superlatives are often counter-productive because they create a question in the mind of the consumer, such as: "Is this really the fastest courier service available?" Superlatives are great to establish a sense of humor or unique niche position, but few brands can afford taking that risk.
  4. Remember there must be a fly in the ointment. People tend to have a built in "crap-o-meter" to tell them when something is just too good to be true, and they resent being misled. Any properly written unique selling proposition includes a trade-off on the part of the customer, what they are willing to give up when purchasing your product. Don't be afraid of that part of your value proposition. For instance, Little Caesar's Pizza is all about value. "Hot and ready" is a long distance from "gourmet specialty pizza." Little Caesar's doesn't mind that its customers are in on that little secret.
  5. Let customers tell your story. This is probably my favorite insight. You are far less likely to make extraordinary claims if you leave the story telling to your customers. They can describe what they were looking for and how you or your product filled their need much better than you can. And they are more believable as well. Customer quotes in press releases are rare but can also be very effective.
  6. Let partners tell your story. Similar to customers, business partners can also reinforce your position in the value chain. Think of it as a company that makes staplers making a recommendation of another brand for staples based on the experience of their customers. That's a much stronger endorsement than a company that says, "buy our ink and our paper to use in our printer."
  7. If you are describing a product prior to release, only describe the core or most basic features. Many product roadmaps shed features as they progress. You don't want customers sold on features that don't make it into the final release.
  8. Always hold something back as an element of surprise. As a corollary to #7, the element of surprise can delight customers and keep your competition off balance. Describing a new product or service in too much detail prior to launch leaves little room for your audience to be delighted.
  9. Avoid communicating specific dates when possible. Launch ahead of schedule when a date has been set (easier said than done). Public companies have less latitude when "over delivering." The Street rewards companies for doing what they say they will do, not necessarily doing more than promised. Startups and more entrepreneurial ventures can beat expectations every day if they want by simply never committing on a date. Part of the secret of exceeding expectations when it comes to timelines is to never communicate the timeline itself. A product that bursts on the scene from "nowhere" will typically carry more mystique and have much lower hurdles for acceptance than a product that has been anticipated for the last five years.
  10. Listen to your customers and focus on what they need most rather than every possible feature. You can exceed your customers' expectations by just showing that you listen to them. Most customers in today's chaotic environment are still shocked to find a company that listens to and addresses their biggest needs. Small demonstrations of understanding and respect for the customer will cover a multitude of inadequacies in other areas.

I hope this list helps you delight your customers by easily exceeding their expectations.

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