The Customer Expectation–Experience Gap
Businesses today operate in a challenging environment, with consumer expectations increasing by nearly 28 percent in the past year alone, according to Brand Keys' 2015 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI). Unfortunately, brands have only managed to improve their ability to meet consumers' expectations by 7 percent this year.
"Every year things are speeding up, and customers keep wanting more. As expectations have increased, most brands aren't able to meet those expectations," explains Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, a brand engagement and customer loyalty research consultancy. "There's a wide gap between what consumers want and what companies can actually deliver."
Consumers, Passikoff explains, are looking for brands "that will better meet their expectations on the emotional side of the purchase equation." Sadly, few can actually do this, he says.
According to Passikoff, consumers' emotional connections with brands go beyond finding products that will best satisfy their needs. Emotional value to a consumer encompasses other levels of gratification, engagement, individual values and behaviors, past experiences with the brand across all touch points, loyalty, and other factors.
"There is no universal ideal for every product or every category," Passikoff says. "The way that consumers look at things is different, depending on what they are buying."
Adding to the complexity for brands, Passikoff notes, is that "expectations that customers set are unrestrained by reality."
Still, that doesn’t mean that meeting expectations is an impossible feat. In fact, AT&T, Hyundai, Ford, Domino's, Dunkin Donuts, Google, Discover, Avis, Konica/Minolta, and the NFL have all done it for a few years, maintaining the top spot in their particular categories on the Brand Keys index. Brands that were rated number one in their categories for the first time this year include Air Canada, Facebook, Kellogg's Nutri-Grain, Chipotle, Exxon-Mobil, Nationwide, and Travelocity.
Brands such as these, Passikoff points out, have higher engagement power, more loyal customers, greater market share, and higher sales and profits. Quite simply, brands better able to meet expectations "are more profitable than their competition," he says.
And while brands on this year's list span 64 categories, the highest-ranking ones among them have bridged the expectation-experience gap, according to Passikoff.
"The top companies get ahead of the trends. They are able to understand where the expectations are going. They are the companies that do not have to play catch-up," he says. "We can point to them as innovators, but the really smart companies are the ones who can identify where customer values are going."
This, Passikoff says, can have a ripple effect throughout an industry. "The moment that one company is able to identify an expectation and starts to fulfill it, it opens it up for the rest of the industry to step up and do the same. If they can't, they will fall behind and eventually fall by the wayside."
Fortunately, it's not too late for the laggards to catch up, Passikoff maintains.
First, companies need to segment their customers. Next, they must develop a complete understanding of who their customers are by understanding the emotional elements that tie customers to the product, Passikoff suggests.
Gathering that kind of information is "an exercise in exploration," he says.
Focus groups, he says, are a good start, but they typically do not go into enough detail on an individual level.
Surveys—especially ones that reveal customer attitudes—are best for understanding what drives consumers on a deep emotional level, Passikoff says.
Once the attitudinal data is obtained, he says, applying that information to the customer interaction has to go beyond basic marketing. "Companies do a fine job of appealing to customers with catchy imagery. But that is advertising, [which is] about influencing a short-term buying decision, not creating a long-term connection.
"The marketplace moves at the speed of the consumer. It's not good enough to wait for someone to say, 'This is what we want,' and then [do] it," Passikoff contends. "Brands need to realize an opportunity on their own and fill in the gaps ahead of their competitors. In a marketplace where brands struggle to differentiate, those better able to identify customers' expectations and address them via authentic emotional values will see bottom-line results."