How to...manage customer expectations

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Making the sale is paramount, but no customer relationship will stand the test of time unless it is built on a sustainable cycle of give-and-take, with clearly defined roles for each party. Surprises and inequities are not the stuff of long-term engagements. Follow these four steps to ensure that your customers know what you will do for them--and what is not a reasonable expectation. Know What Customers Value As an organization you may have certain ideas about the optimal mix of price, speed, and quality to optimize your own operations, but unless those offerings map closely to customer expectations and interests, that information means little. Evaluate your market to understand customers' priorities: Once your business is geared to the metrics that customers value, it will be easier to create and deliver value propositions that serve their needs as well as yours. Spell It Out
Customers cannot be expected to honor your expectations and requirements if they aren't aware of them. "Be as explicit as you possibly can be on the front end: what you are going to do and what you are not going to do; what a particular quote includes and what it does not include," says Dianne Durkin, president of consulting firm Loyalty Factor. "You cannot be too explicit in this type of situation." Rather than bringing conversation to a screeching halt with a dense contract booklet, Durkin recommends dividing rights and responsibilities into a series of checkpoint summaries or milestone documents. At each milestone the duties and expectations of each party are clearly stated, including both client and provider deliverables. Don't let this process become dictatorial. There should be enough room, particularly for complex and long-term engagements, to provide customers with a choice. "Make sure you give people options and trade-offs and [make sure] that they fully understand the options and trade-offs," Durkin says. Know Your Competitors' Promises The risk in taking the high road and following a policy of "underpromise and overdeliver" is that shady competitors may have no qualms about overpromising and underdelivering. There is always the possibility of "rescuing" a customer from a bad engagement, but it is better still to set the record straight before they make a mistake. Keep an ear to the ground to uncover any promises competitors make that you know are too good to be true. You can also come up with likely over-commitments by other organizations simply by identifying promises your own organization would like to be able to keep, but cannot. Of course, savvy customers will take anything you say about a competitor with a grain of salt. But by delivering the message in a consultative context, speaking from experience, you will give them enough ground to seriously question any out-of-bounds commitments by a competitor. Scrupulously Keep Your Promises Nothing will torpedo your attempt to hold your clients accountable for their end of the bargain faster than your own failure to live up to expectations. Sending late payment notices when the clock strikes midnight on an order your company delivered a week past promise sends a message that you do not consider your own obligations as important as the customer's. Establish that you both say what you mean and mean what you say, and customers will find it easier to accept your terms as part of an ongoing, predictable relationship.
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