Sales and marketing representatives often overstate their companies' strong points, and while it's an accepted—if not officially sanctioned—practice at most businesses, it's among the top customer complaints cited in a recent survey by the American Society for Quality (ASQ).
In its survey of 600 quality and customer service professionals worldwide, ASQ found that managing customer expectations was the top challenge facing customer service departments. It was cited by 29 percent of respondents worldwide, 31.7 percent of respondents in the United States, and 45.5 percent of respondents in Mexico. Other concerns included communicating with customers (20 percent), educating customers about their products and services (16 percent), providing customers with timely service (13 percent), and training and retaining good staff (12 percent).
"Companies are starting to realize that they are not meeting customer expectations because they are not setting realistic expectations up front," says John Goodman, ASQ customer service expert and vice chairman of customer care measurement and consulting.
And while it might seem harmless at first, the ASQ survey found that feeling misled by sales or marketing is four times more damaging to customer satisfaction than product defects.
"Setting realistic expectations is a real challenge," Goodman says.
Most sales or marketing people do not want to talk about the negatives, but doing so in the right context can go a long way, Goodman says. For a tech company, for example, "it shows a customer that you care enough to warn him about potential bugs in the system and how to avoid them," he adds.
The really smart vendors, Goodman continues, "are the ones that not only sell products, but educate their customers on how to use them."
This, he adds, can best be done by proactive outreach. "If you want to have better margins, you need to prevent problems with proactive outreach. If I can anticipate your needs before you reach out to me, I can do great things to protect the brand and avoid phone calls."
Conversely, the more a customer has to call the company, the greater his dissatisfaction with its products or services, Goodman asserts.
Goodman further argues that investing in customer service is a critical strategy for profitability because "encountering a problem doubles customer sensitivity to price, and a second problem doubles it again, resulting in degraded margins."
But despite this, companies are still much more likely to invest their resources in areas other than customer service, the survey found. Only 4 percent of survey respondents ranked customer service as a top priority at their companies, compared to 38 percent for new product or service development, 18 percent for information technology, and 13 percent for marketing and advertising.
More than a third of companies (36 percent) said they have not created management-level positions to oversee the customer service experience, while 28 percent say service is managed through the customer service department and 20 percent say it is part of the quality department.
When they do measure customer service and satisfaction, they ranked the following as the most common measurement methods: customer satisfaction surveys (75 percent); voice of the customer programs (48 percent); focus groups (21 percent); and technology to measure or quantify customer needs, expectations, and/or satisfaction (20 percent).
The problem with most surveys as they are conducted today is that they are self-serving and fail to get at the root of problems, according to Goodman.
"A better type of survey offers a list of the top problems that customers have come to the company with and asks if they apply," Goodman says. "Marketing will scream about this, but it makes the company top-of-mind because the customer sees that the company is aware of its problems and is working to fix them."
Especially in the B2B world, it's important to know that many dissatisfied customers do not complain, at least not directly to the company. This makes it even more critical to listen to those who do, according to the research.
"Complaining customers tell you where your processes are failing and probably alienating ten times as many customers who are simply not telling you, costing you a huge amount of revenue," Goodman says. "It is the lost repeat business you don't even know you lost."