The expectations vacuum

In the absence of expectations being set about what I can or can’t do, it is perfectly reasonable that you as the customer or other stakeholder will apply your own expectations to the situation.

But here’s the problem with that.

It dooms me to fail.

Because there is no way that I can know what your expectations are unless you tell me (which is unlikely) and even if I ask you, chances are you won’t be able to tell me anyway (pesky little things, they only reveal themselves when disappointed).

So my only choice is to be clear about the expectations I set. At least then you can choose to accept them or not.

This is the opportunity and the failing for most of us. We set expectations badly and then get upset when things don’t happen the way we want them to.

And yes, while some of it is human nature – after all something about being specific about what you can and can’t do just feels a bit unseemly, there is not much unseemlier than being part of the resulting conversations when the expectations I didn’t set bump up against the ones you didn’t tell me you had.

Here are some of the really stupid reasons that I’ve heard over the years about why expectations weren’t set:

  • If we are too specific then they will hold us to it.
  • If we say what we will do our competition will just one up us.
  • If we say what we will do customers might decide to go somewhere else.
  • They have to tell us what they want and then we’ll do it.
  • They will just expect us to do what they want no matter what we say.

And plenty more along those lines…

But underneath all the justifications often lies the fact that many businesses have never stopped to really think about what they can and can’t, will and won’t do. And if you haven’t done that there isn’t much chance you can clearly set an expectation around it.

Of course the customer or other party in all this isn’t off the hook. If you don’t ask about something you expect and confirm that’s what will happen, then you share part of the blame when it doesn’t.

But in general, the onus does lie with me as the person who is providing the service, product, or whatever. I have to say what I can and can’t, will and won’t do. And I have to reflect my values and my purpose in doing that. I have to think about my customers when I do it. I have to think about my own business and employees when I do it.

Because when it comes right down to it, whatever the expectations you set, being able to meet them is the most important thing – for your business and your brand.

Michel is an independent Brand advocate 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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