9 Real World Examples of Setting Clear Expectations with Your Customers

Sarah Chambers Sarah Chambers · 8 min read

If we don’t provide our customer reference points by setting customer expectations, customers will search out their own reference points.

Ever wish you could get inside the head of your customer?

Turns out, you can. Benchmarking, or setting customer expectations, is a well-known psychological tool that helps customers evaluate the quality of your customer service. This behavioral economics theory is called Prospect Theory.

Prospect Theory describes the way people choose between alternatives that involve risk – like who to do business with. In particular, Prospect Theory helps us understand how customers decide whether your company provides good or bad service.

As Professor Ryan Hamilton explains on the Intuitive Customer podcast, humans use reference points to evaluate the world around us. Humans don’t think in absolutes – almost all of our decisions are based on relativity. For example, we don’t look at the number on our paycheck and decide we make enough money. We use the reference points of other people’s paychecks, along with our past salary, along with other inputs, to decide if it’s fair.

Customers rely on the expectations we’ve set when evaluating our customer support. For example, if we say we respond to all messages in 4 hours, that’s the reference point our customers will measure us against. We’ve set the expectations of a 4 hour reply time.

If we don’t provide our customer reference points by setting customer expectations, customers will search out their own reference points. That might be your competitors’ service or past experience they had.

Their evaluation becomes much easier when we set expectations around the service we provide. This gives customers a simple starting point to compare their actual experience. If we meet or exceed their expectations – they’ll think the service was great!

Below, we show you 9 real live examples of how companies are setting customer expectations across multiple contact channels.

Setting Chat Availability

Olark obviously does chat support very well. It starts with their welcome message as soon as you click the help button on their homepage. Setting customer expectations of when chat will be online allow customers to plan when to ask for help.

The message below is clear, friendly and lets customers know exactly when they can get in touch with Olarkers over live chat – and what to do while they wait.

Predicting Response Times

If you asked five people on the street what a quick response to an email is, you’d get five different responses. That’s because their reference points around urgent emails are different.

When customers write to support, we have the opportunity to provide our own reference point for their consideration. Telling customers that our team frequently responds in a few hours (like Intercom does in their chat widget below) helps them estimate how long they should wait. Without that piece of information, some customers might assume responses should be immediate.

Automating: A Robot or A Human?

Customers want to know if they are talking to a chatbot or a human.

Awkward confession: I collect examples of customer support sites that I like, and grabbed this one in August 2016 without tagging it properly. I’m honestly not sure where it’s from (please tell me if you do!) but I am fond of the P.S. note on their invitation to chat.

Setting the expectation that customers will always be talking to a human on chat encourages customers to get in touch, even with their toughest questions. It also avoids humans being treated like a bot. How many times does the average chat agent get asked, “are you a robot? Are you sure? I think that’s what a robot would say.”

On the other hand, if your customers are talking to a bot – that’s cool too. 44% of customers don’t mind interacting with a chatbot if it gets them faster responses. However, as most of us will agree, trying to pass off a bot as a human makes chatting really frustrating.

Next Insurance makes it clear their Facebook Messenger is run by an automated assistant. It’s a pretty smart assistant… but it’s still a bot. And setting that expectation early helps customers understand how to interact with it.

You know. We know. Let’s just call a bot a bot.

Staffing Twitter Support

72% of people expect a response on Twitter from a brand within an hour of tweeting. But what if your customer service agents have all gone home for the night? If you don’t let customers know when they can expect to find you online, they will automatically assume you’re always available. Evernote makes it clear when customers can expect a quick response directly in their Twitter bio.

customer expectation

Hootsuite takes a different approach to letting customers know they are available. Everyday they start their shift with a quick, friendly tweet out to their followers. Not only is it a great way to set the expectation that someone is available – it’s a great way to encourage customer engagement.

Dealing with Refunds

Allie Cloyd, Head of CS at Maxwell Financial Labs, has seen first hand how clear expectations around refunds can help improve the customer experience.

In a previous role at EasyBib, she placed the company refund policy in a Help Center article. Customers who were looking for a refund usually discovered the article before emailing in. Once they knew about the “no questions asked” refund policy, they could simply email in and get their money back.

“Customers would write in asking for a refund referring to the article, and not really expect anything more than that,” says Allie. This removed the burden of explaining policy from agents, because customers already knew exactly what refund to expect.

customer expectation

If you can’t offer a refund, be upfront about what you can do. Store credit keeps a customer coming back, even after a bad experience.

For example, Baskits sells food items, which can’t be returned for obvious reasons. In their FAQ, they explain that they will exchange items with a 15% restocking fee. While it’s not the 100% guarantee some customers might be looking for, Baskits is transparent about what it can and cannot do.

customer expectation

Owning Account Ownership

Anyone who works in B2B has felt the pain of account ownership transfers. Someone has left the company, an email address is defunct, Bob’s out on vacation, but … oh my god, we need access to this account right now. However, most companies follow a strict ownership policy for security reasons. Handing the keys over to another email address just isn’t going to happen – and that can be a tough pill for customers to swallow.

Basecamp does a really great job of setting customer expectations for account ownership transfers on their policy site. In no uncertain terms, they lay out the three options customer have to recover the account. Either contact the old owner, get us to contact them, or get a court order. They also focus on the reason why Basecamp cannot simply transfer the account: security.

customer expectation

By putting it in writing, it’s tough to argue with. If your team also struggles with account ownership questions, I highly recommend reading through Basecamp’s policy as a starting point.

What if I can only set low expectations?

Reading through all these examples, you might be thinking; “okay, but I can’t commit to a very quick reply, and we can’t offer refunds right now.”

That’s fine. Support is a journey, and your team is working towards a better experience.

It’s still much better to be upfront with customers, even if you aren’t proud of the service you’re currently delivering. (And that’s a whole different issue to tackle!)

To determine what expectations your customer has that you’re not meeting, look at your customer satisfaction surveys.

Customers whose expectations are not met will tell you!

Dive into negative survey responses to see where things have gone wrong.

Customer might not use the words “I expected” when complaining about missed expectations. They might talk about responses taking too long. They might be upset about the refund amount offered to them. For every comment you read, think – why did the customer expect something different?

Think of it this way:
Your customer sends you an email. After 3 days of not hearing from you, they get frustrated and send in another email. Your team finally reaches their email in the queue and responds back to an already angry customer.

Or, the same situation, but setting customer expectations in an autoresponder:

Your customer sends you an email. They instantly receive an autoresponder email back apologizing for slow response times, as you’re in the middle of a busy period. They can expect to hear back in 3 to 4 business days. Alternatively, they can check out the Help Center for assistance.

Either way, the customer is receiving a response in 3 business days. But isn’t it better that they know ahead of time? They might try a little harder to help themselves in your knowledge base. They probably won’t send in another email. Plus, if you do manage to get back to them faster, they will be pleasantly surprised! By setting a reference point of when they can expect a response, you’re making it easier for customers to decide your service was satisfactory.

Remember – it’s always better to underpromise and overdeliver than to overpromise and underdeliver.

Setting customer expectations helps them know what to watch for, and reduces the risk of them creating their own assumptions. It’s much easier to deliver on explicitly made promises – rather than trying to hit the mark your customer sets in their own mind.

Exceeding expectations vs. Meeting expectations

Exceeding expectations of your customers causes happy feelings in the same way surprises do. Customers aren’t expecting anything out of the ordinary when they call in. Receiving better-than-average support gives customers a moment of surprise, that leaves them feeling happy.

Taryn Hillin at Splinter News explains this perfectly: “Being surprised activates the pleasure centers in our brain and gives us a nice shot of dopamine, which makes experiences more enjoyable.”

Surprises are great! But imagine walking into a surprise birthday party after crashing your car. Surprises don’t have a positive effect if you’re not already in a good mood. This is true in customer service as well. As Adam Toporek says, moments of delight “are the cherry on top; they are not the cake.” It’s important to focus first on solving problems, before delighting customers.

So should exceeding expectations of your customers be your top priority? Leaving your customers delighted and happy sounds like a great goal. But it’s actually really difficult to do consistently. Any time you put into wow-ing one customer, means taking time away from helping others. And that extra effort might not even be appreciated.

Scientists found that the effort put into exceeding a promise might not be worth it. In a study where participants were promised concert tickets, then given worse, equal or better seats than they were promised, participants were no happier or more likely to recommend the company when given better seats. They were much more upset when they were given worse seats.

So while doing something nice for customers is fine, it’s much more important meeting customer expectations for everyone instead of exceeding them for a few.

Set expectations where it matters

Review this quick checklist to see if you’re setting customer expectations everywhere that matters:

  • Set Chat Availability, so customers know when you’ll be online
  • Communicate expected response times, so customers can anticipate the reply
  • Identify your bots, so customers know how to communicate with you
  • Shout about Twitter support, so customers tweet when you’re ready
  • Clarify your refund policy, so customers know what to ask for
  • Share account ownership procedures, so customers know where to go

Use these examples to start setting customer expectations, and never have them ask “how long?” again.

How did you like this blog?


Sarah Chambers Sarah Chambers

Sarah Chambers is a Customer Support Consultant and Content Creator from Vancouver, Canada. When she’s not arguing about customer service, she’s usually outdoors rock climbing or snowboarding. Follow her on Twitter @sarahleeyoga to keep up with her adventures.

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