The first time I heard the phrase “manage customer expectations,” it sounded like simple, proactive butt-covering to me. Maybe I heard it that way because of the person making the suggestion, perhaps not the greatest when it came to good delivery of service. But over the years, I’ve come to believe that the right kind of expectation management is the heart of a great service agreement.

In the most powerful case, the management of expectations is actually a collaborative enterprise. Your customer has expectations on what they want done. You have expectations on what can be done. This combination of vision and deep expertise is the context for a level of creativity and high-probability success that can often surprise both parties. It’s awesome when it happens, and sets a strongly optimistic tone for the rest of an engagement.

Vision shaped by expertise: What’s the key here? Within the limits of any time constraints, an overabundance of communication helps to transform the customer’s initial vision into objectives that can be met within the means available. Not only that, but in many cases expertise can help the customer find ways to exceed their vision and achieve even greater outcomes.

But, now, let’s be honest. Few customers are truly visionary, and few service providers in any field have the level of expertise to be truly creative with a customer’s vision. What then?

The stretch for both parties, in these common kinds of cases, remains the overabundance of communication to build some form of collaborative dialog. Let’s add a skill to the service provider. Let’s call it “great investigative skills.” Can the service provider put questions together that draw the customer’s needs and desires into the conversation? If the service provider can, then, alas, we have to ask for another skill. Can the service provider “connect the dots” from the information drawn out of the cutomer to form the path to the customer’s success?

So, let’s review. There are cases when the customer and the service provider simply create magic because of their special skills and intellectual connections.

Then there are the cases where magic doesn’t occur. What are the steps to customer expectation management in these cases?

  1. Overabundance of communication. Help the customer articulate their needs and desires in terms that you can fulfill.
  2. To do this, listen carefully for clues on how to compose ongoing questions.
  3. After careful checking that you have a complete picture of needs and desires, use your expertise to pull together the plan that will meet your customer’s expectations.

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