How (not) to set expectations

How (not) to set expectations

It shouldn’t be news to anyone who reads this blog regularly that I believe one of the great red herrings of customer satisfaction is the whole idea of “wowing” them ­– I go so far as to call it the myth of wow.

There are a number of good reasons for this and way out in front by a country mile is the fact that most companies fail the basic test of even satisfying their customers by doing what they say they will – let alone going past that to wow.

I was reminded about this again this week through the frustration of my husband over the shipping failure of an online order.

Before I get to the detail of the story, here’s my very simple three-step process to having satisfied customers.

Step 1. Set expectations that you can keep (harder than it sounds because it means you have to know your business, what you can and can’t do).

Step 2. Communicate them clearly to your customers (there are professional copywriters who can help you with this – find one and use them).

Step 3. Keep them (even harder than setting them is doing this consistently).

So back to the story.

It should have been a simple thing. Place order. Get confirmation. And a day or so later get an email saying that your product has been shipped. Over to Australia Post. A few days (or maybe a week) later package arrives. Everyone is happy.

What happened instead. After no shipping confirmation and no package after 14 days, an email had to be sent to the company to see when or if the product had been shipped. The response was a classic (for all the wrong reasons), but in effect it referred back to their website shipping information. And in doing so they have provided a great example of why setting expectations is harder than it sounds.

The following is taken directly from the website of the company in question:

“We will always attempt to despatch Internet orders as quickly as possible and they are given priority. Orders are normally shipped within 7-14 days (sometimes even quicker) from our Sydney office via Australia Post, however please allow up to 28 days, as there are occasional unforeseeable delays with stock availability. If for any reason it goes beyond 28 days we will contact you to advise of alternative arrangements.

When your order is being packed we will email you with an estimated despatch date.”

Wow (and not for any reason that is good). There are so many things wrong with these few short paragraphs it’s hard to pick what to highlight.

One of the things about setting expectations is that it’s impossible to do it well if you don’t have a handle on things such as how long it actually takes to get something off a shelf and onto a truck (up to 14 days – seriously, who does their fulfilment? Snails R Us?) or whether a product is in stock or not.

I understand this company is trying to cover their ass, so when things don’t fit into their very elastic idea of “normal” they can point to this information and say, ‘But we told you.’ Which is exactly what they did in the mysterious case of the unshipped package that inspired this blog.

My advice to them. Spend some time and figure out your supply chain and logistics. Decide what you can consistently do and just say that and stop trying to cover your ass.

Irrespective of the expectations you set, things will go more smoothly, customers are less likely to be disappointed and more likely to return if they know what they are getting into. But they do have to make sense and be communicated clearly.

Oh and please, please never make your bad business processes the customer’s problem in lieu of setting expectations or you might find yourself on the receiving end of a reply like this:

“I will not puchase from you again, couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting for the package to arrive, or having to eventually ask for it to be shipped. This was a first and last time.”

See you next week.

Michel is an independent brand analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan


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