How to Set Customer Expectations

by Stephanie Taylor Christensen on September 21, 2011
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Conventional wisdom has it that unhappy customers are far more likely than happy ones to tell others about their experiences. This axiom seems to ring true now more than ever: According to a recent study by marketing research firm Colluquy, 75 percent of people are inclined to share negative experiences they have with companies.

This statistic may cause anxiety for small-business owners who rely on customer satisfaction to make or break their bottom lines. The good news: You don’t have to wow every customer. You just need to set reasonable expectations — and then meet them. Here’s how:

Put things in writing. When working with a new vendor, client, or provider, use service agreements and contracts at the start of every new relationship to lessen the potential for miscommunication and misunderstandings — and to protect yourself legally, in case an issue does arise. Outline the details of agreed-upon service levels, timelines, payment, the nature of the relationship, policies around ownership, and how any shared confidential information will be handled. Once all the terms are laid out, have both parties sign on the dotted line, and retain a hard copy of the agreement.

Be authentic. A flashy website, cool logo, and sharp photography all contribute to your business image — unless they lead people astray. Make sure that your image reflects what your company actually does or provides, as well as your target market. If you serve upscale clientele, have a great space, or specialize in unique products or services, by all means, create marketing to support it. But if you’re running an operation based largely on low prices and discounts, don’t make customers believe they’re going to get the “red carpet” treatment.

Ditch the fine print. Nothing upsets a customer more than finding out about policies and procedures after the fact. Be proactive and open about the way you do business. If you don’t accept returns or give refunds, make sure that customers know this up front. Similarly, make customers aware of potential service shortcomings, such as required paid parking or long wait times, before they arrive. Educate any customer-facing employees about how to communicate your policies and handle potential concerns.

Encourage people to spread the word. Small businesses sometimes fear the power that online communication gives customers, but it can be a great tool in setting customer expectations. After all, there is a reason for “seller feedback” on sites like Amazon: Testimonials are powerful persuaders, and customers gain an understanding of who or what your business is about when they read reviews. Do your best to satisfy every customer and give them the opportunity (and maybe even an incentive) to tell the world about their personal experience with your brand.

Stephanie Taylor Christensen is a former financial services marketer who brings more than a decade of experience in marketing and writing to her career as a full-time freelance writer and small business owner.

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