How customer expectations are both higher & lower than you think

Through my many podcast conversations with customer experience and branding experts over the past weeks (you can subscribe to the podcast here), it struck me how customer relations are increasingly driven by two seemingly opposite forces: on the one hand, customers keep expecting more and more from us, but at the same time, their expectations are probably lower than most of us think in certain areas. This opposition puzzled me for a while, but then I realized that they were merely different manifestations on the same data-driven spectrum. If there is one thing I will always remember from my visits to China, it is that opposites do not necessarily cancel out other out: both can be true simultaneously. Let me explain based on my own insights combined with the learnings from my guests in my podcast.

Following Moore’s Law

You probably know that I’m a big believer in following customer needs and expectations, and how smart and sensing technologies today are at the same time both fulfilling and increasing them. But what once seemed very ‘Day After Tomorrow’, has by now evolved into pure hygiene. Using tech to make the buying experience frictionless, personalized and predictive has become completely normal. Only the underperformers have not been busy with this.

Today, as customer experience strategist and international keynote speaker Ken Hughes (listen to my interview with him here) put it, we’re experiencing some type of Moore’s Law of customer expectations: they keep rising exponentially, far beyond the traditional relationship between brand and buyer; beyond product or service and all the process around that. The once purely functional exchange between customer and brand is now “moving higher on the Maslow pyramid”, as keynote speaker and expert in understanding and collaborating with consumers Tom De Ruyck described it.

I loved how he quoted David Jones, Former CEO of Havas Media, to prove his point: “We need to move from marketing to consumers to mattering to people”. From selling products and services, or even creating a brand that people aspire to – however brilliantly done – Tom believes that the discourse is changing into one where brands must help customers fulfil their personal goals and where they can forge a meaningful and trustworthy bond with them.

Trust, value and relevance are the keywords here. It’s what I’ve been talking and writing about for a while now: only the really strong brands will be able to get through the filter of automated buying and conversational bots. And by strong brands I mean those with absolutely great products that know how to combine a functional and emotional relation with customers: those that offer real value by helping people buy with for instance a useful content layer (like supermarkets offering info on how healthy a product is) and that prove time and time again that the algorithms they apply to offer a better experience are not only useful, but also trustworthy.

Professor Strategic Marketing Rudy Moenaert added a societal layer to these expectations as well when I talked to him for my podcast. According to him customer of today expect brands to think beyond unique selling propositions and customer value propositions: they want them to think about the value proposition for society, too. It’s not only about creating shareholder value, it’s about creating shared value.

But if you truly want to understand the hockey-stick curve of rising customer expectations, you should look at China. Even more than quality and frictionless, personalized and a predicted experience, the Chinese expect speed. According to nexxworks keynote speaker and China expert Pascal Coppens that has to do with the fact that they’re a country of 1.4 billion people where everyone has to fight if they want to get something. This mind-set makes them a very impatient type of customer. Also, in China, the speed of change is so fast that companies pull every trick in the box to stay ahead of the competition, moving beyond the speed of the market. I believe that everything we’re now seeing in China in terms of customer expectations will move here in 5 to 10 years. We’re not there yet, but it’s coming.

Looking beyond the loud minority

But there’s a flip side, too. Listening to Leslie Cottenjé, CEO of Hello Customer made me realize that we sometimes overestimate the expectations of our customers, because we only listen to the ones who shout the loudest.

It quite logical, really. Happy and satisfied customers will rarely tell you spontaneously that they are deeply fulfilled by what you sell and how you treat them. That’s just not how people are wired. The voices we do hear, are those of disgruntled and very critical customers. We definitely should pay attention to them, and let their feedback inspire us for shaping our own Day After Tomorrow. But we should not let ourselves be lulled into believing that that is THE voice of our customers. They’re still a minority. A loud minority, to be reckoned with, yes. But a minority nonetheless.

This is where data and AI comes in, of course: to find patterns, and give a voice to the silent majority, that’s just as important – if not more – than the dissenting voices. Leslie told me that when her customers started working with her customer feedback platform ‘Hello customer’, they are often surprised to understand that what they thought was a very big issue, turns out not to be not such a big deal across the entire customer base. “A lot of organizations come to realize that they have been focusing on the wrong priorities”, she told me. For instance, customers who thought that speed of delivery was a top priority, found out that customers found other issues a lot more important. Turns out that in a lot of sectors, we’re not on the Chinese level of delivery speed for now. (Of course, things are different when you’re delivering warm meals etc.) When it comes to customer expectation, it’s very important that you know who you are listening to, who you should be listening to and keep trying to see the bigger picture.

So yes, customer expectations are definitely on the rise: from a functional relation, to a personal, emotional and even societal conversation. But please make sure that you are listening to the right people and understand what the real priorities are. They might not be what you think.