Managing Expectations: One of the keys to success and happiness


©2010 Paul Edgewater All Rights Reserved

Not managing expectations is at the root of most failings when dealing with people; both in business and in our personal lives. If we’ve ever been burned in business, it’s because our expectations weren’t met. If our hearts have ever been broken, it’s because our expectations weren’t met. Something was supposed to—or not supposed to—happen, or someone was supposed to do—or not do—something. In either case, the expected result was not what the outcome ended up being. The consequence is always the same; disappointment. It’s not usually the end result in and of itself either; it’s that the expected result didn’t come to fruition.

Think of our own experiences in business. Whenever we got more than we bargained for, the memory is a sweet one. Whenever the converse is true, the experience can sour a business relationship enough to end it. Unfortunately, this happens very easily and it’s not necessarily because of malice. It’s usually because the entity making promises unrealistically set the bar of expectations too high. The ability to manage expectations comes with experience.

What does it take to manage expectations? In a nutshell, it comes down to only taking on what you can effectively execute with the resources at hand. If a business is a new one, very often the proprietor is anxious about securing business and will sometimes agree to something before resources are secured to execute; be it in personnel, equipment or specialized knowledge. But this can also happen to the seasoned business professional who may be hurting for business and will agree to, or say anything to secure the business. These folks may think that everything will fall into place once the wheels start moving, but very often it doesn’t. Whether you’re new or experienced; don’t ever fall into this trap.

At my company, the rare times something hasn’t gone right in the eyes or our clients is because we as a company didn’t properly manage their expectations  (I’m very grateful those occasions have been few-and-far-between). The reasons for this can often be traced back to working with a third party who made promises we weren’t aware of and as a result, we had a hard time reigning in those expectations when proposals and big plans were being made without us being present, either by the first or third party. Sometimes expectations are set in brain storming sessions which is a mistake. That’s an environment where all ideas are on the table. That’s where concepts are born, not where the executional minutia is established. The problem manifests when those sessions are revisited without an objective review of how the viable expectations can be set and established. Of course everyone would like to meet all expectations and every company does their best to do this, but it’s a good idea to sometimes lower expectations. It’s been said that it’s best to under promise and over deliver.

My company produced a conference for NRC (now called Avid) back in 2004 and the keynote speaker, Paul Cardis, CEO of NRC cited an excellent example of managing expectations (for those who don’t know this company, they are basically the J. D. Power of home builders here in the States). This portion of his talk covered a somewhat common phenomenon in home building; as a new house settles, the foundation will sometimes crack. This is an important customer service and public relations issue for builders. If enough people file complaints to the Better Business Bureau about cracked foundations in new homes, it could potentially sink a home builder. How should a home builder address this? By managing expectations. Mr. Cardis told his audience that home builders shouldn’t hide the fact that foundations may crack. Instead, he urged builders to preemptively inform all home buyers that not only can their foundations crack—but that they WILL crack! Does that come as a shock to you? It did to me. Even though all foundations won’t crack (most don’t), is it a good idea to tell someone who just gave you perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) for a new home, that the foundation is going to crack? Apparently yes. The reader is probably quicker than I, but just in case you need some clarification; if you don’t disclose everything to someone who’s just made perhaps the largest investment of their lives, and something like a foundation cracks, you’re going to have trouble. If however, you preemptively tell them that it is going to happen, you have properly managed expectations. Put yourself in the position of that home buyer. While you are being shown the property, the agent tells you something to the effect;

“This is a new home which was built on cleared land. The ground under the home was formally a corn field and never supported anything heavier than a tractor.  After all the tons of concrete, wood, bricks, roofing, windows, flooring, etc. are piled on top of the ground, it’s common & expected that the foundation will crack with settling. We of course take all measures to prevent this, but most of the time, it will. If and when it happens, we of course will come and fix it free of charge for the first 5 years of ownership after which time, the home will have settled properly so as to prevent this from being a chronic condition.”

Now you as the home buyer, have been prepared for your foundation to crack. If and when it does, you take it in stride because your expectations have been managed properly. If however, the builder chooses not to disclose this information to you and if and when your foundation breaks, you’re calling 60 minutes or John Stossel and the builder has a big problem and an even bigger PR issue. Let’s say the foundation never cracks (which is the most likely scenario), now this customer is telling everyone within earshot how great their house is and how amazing it is that the foundation didn’t crack. That represents new business for the builder while the former scenario represents lost-and never-to-be-had business. Use this example & think of the dollar value of managing expectations properly in your business. If you are in fact a home builder and the median home price is $165,000 (in 2011) a lost sale based on profits of 50% is $82,500 and a sale made represents this same figure written in the ledger with black ink; all by managing expectations. Whatever your business is, think of your average transaction, and do the math. Not just with that client, but with all the word-of-mouth that client will either generate or forever keep at bay.

You may be saying to yourself, “I already do that”, and maybe you do. That’s great. May I suggest that you go a step further and tell your clients to expect something negative when the odds flesh out that it hardly ever happens? I’m not suggesting that you stretch the truth here. If a potential scenario has never happened before and in all likelihood won’t, don’t present it as such. But if the potential scenario has been demonstrated to have happened in the past with some degree of consistency, then present is as something to be on the look out for. It’s always best to under promise and over deliver. Remember, that negative scenario may end up happening after all. This way, you’ve covered your bases.

In the promotions industry, we often work with two or more parties when planning events. It’s vital to our reputations that we stay on top of the expectations of the party paying the bills. It’s a balancing act to be sure; reassuring the client that the outcome they want is something your company can deliver (so they do in fact do business with you) and not overselling yourself (which ensures a one-time-only-transaction and countless lost revenue and bad blood). As promotions professionals, we must exercise due diligence with these third parties. If they are promising the world to the client and they then bring you in as the fall guy, who takes the fall? We do. It’s vital to be included in on all conceptual & planning meetings. I can’t tell you how many times we have been brought into a project that should never have left the brain storming session it was originally brought up in. A perfect example of this was with one of our best clients. I’m not going to disclose which client it was or where it happened because we fortunately sill do a great deal of business with them and they don’t need the embarrassment. In the interest of giving you, the reader very important information whilst protecting the reputation of one of my cherished client, I’m changing names, places and details, but not changing the gist of the lesson I learned the hard way.

A number of years ago, this client approached us with an ambitious project of decorating a large number of their prominent stores with holiday decorations. We had been working with this client in many areas of the country for years and already had a solid relationship. As a result, we were recommended to this particular region for the project which we were initially grateful for, but later lamented. We flew out to meet with them and the project (as it was presented to us) seemed to be only in need of a vendor to execute it (us). Little did we know that internally, the expectations of this company’s brass had already been raised to unrealistic levels by well-meaning marketing folks who, to say the least, hadn’t taken legal ramifications or their own operational logistics and risk management into consideration.

The plan was to cover their stores top to bottom and in and out with holiday lights. The effect was to be over-the-top; the same way a certain someone in your neighborhood goes the extra mile when doing their holiday decorations on their home. It was to be grand. It was to be news worthy. It was to be spectacular & we wanted nothing more than to deliver the goods. The challenge was though, was our client hadn’t cleared any of this internally before bringing us in. No legal counsel, no operations, no risk management, no facilities—nothing and no one. In hindsight, we weren’t really given the job of executing this event as it was planned; we were given the job of reigning the entire scope of the project in. Right away, we discovered that no one had bothered to check to see if the stores had enough electrical service to support all the lights requested (they didn’t. Not one store had the reserve power). Even if the stores could have all the lights on them without blowing every circuit in their breaker boxes, the lawyers wouldn’t allow any lights to be installed on the stores that could be reached by customers or their kids (either deliberately or accidentally). The end result was that we lined the cornices and roof lines of the stores with strings of lights; something that the property managers at most of these properties did anyway at no extra charge to the tenants as a part of their lease.

Guess who ended up looking bad? Who ended up looking like they couldn’t do what they were brought in to do? Who ended up representing the complete failure of a project that should never have the left board room? The lawyers? Nope. Risk management? No, guess again. Facilities? Try again. The good-intentioned marketing people? You get one more guess. That’s right; our company. We were tarred and feathered, black listed and had the door of future business in this region slammed in our face. And why did that happen? Because we didn’t manage expectations properly. In essence, we didn’t tell them that their foundations were going to crack and they did—big time. What makes this all the worse is that we did everything we possibly could have done to make this promotion a success—except manage the expectations. I can’t put a dollar figure on this blunder, but based on the volume of business we get from other regions that this client serves, its many hundreds of thousands of dollars. More often than not in our industry, we only get one opportunity at bat.

This was a hard lesson and was the impetus behind a check list that we now use whenever strategies are established, or we are brought into a project that has already been planned without our input. It is the best way to ensure that no one is disappointed and more importantly, that your client is happy and will reach out to you for future projects. Of course you should customize this list to reflect your services or product offering, but it’s a great start. Whatever you do, just be sure you manage all expectations—your clients and your own.

Expectation checklist:

  1. What are the current expectations?
  2. Who established them?
  3. How many parties were/are involved in the planning?
  4. Who are they?
  5. Who set the budget?
  6. Are current expectations possible to execute within given parameters?
  7. Has legal counsel been retained for this project?
  8. How much creative time has already been invested?
  9. What logistical work has already been done?
  10. Establish roles & responsibilities.
  11. Lower expectations & under promise.
  12. Over deliver.

2 thoughts on “Managing Expectations: One of the keys to success and happiness

    • Thanks Marilyn,
      This was many, many years ago. I don’t want to divulge too many details as we still occasionally work with this client.
      Thanks for the compliment!

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