Several years ago, before the term Customer Experience (CX) had become mainstream, I attended a lecture on Customer Satisfaction and why measuring it was important for businesses. The presenter told a story about a fictitious restaurant, whose name in the story turned out to be an actual diner in Massachusetts. To maintain its anonymity, I will call it “Pete’s Diner.”

As the story goes, three business executives had traveled from out of town to attend a conference, and at the end of the first day, they gathered in their hotel lobby and asked the concierge to recommend a good place to eat. He immediately suggested Pete’s Diner because, as he said, it was nearby, the food was outstanding and the service was second to none. Convinced that the recommendation was worth trying, and after the concierge made a reservation, the three ventured down the block to Pete’s.

Upon arrival, they were greeted by a friendly maître d’ who promptly seated them at a table near the window with a nice view. Shortly, their server arrived and introduced herself with a sampler of appetizers and three small glasses of house sparkling wine. She asked if this was their first time at Pete’s, to which they responded affirmatively and also noted the restaurant had been highly recommended by the hotel. The knowledgeable server helped them with their menu selections and wine, and from there, their dining experience became truly memorable. Their dinners arrived promptly and were cooked to perfection; the service was unlike anything either of the guests had ever had before, and as they requested the check, all agreed their visit to Pete’s was indeed extraordinary. When the check arrived it also included a small thank you card with two questions for each guest to answer:

  1. How satisfied are you overall with your visit to Pete’s Diner? (the 1 to 5 scale ranged from Totally Dissatisfied to Totally Satisfied)
  1. My experience… 1) Exceeded expectations, 2) met expectations, 3) did not meet expectations

The three of them each answered, “Totally Satisfied” and “Exceeded Expectations.”

The next day, after their meetings, the executives gathered once again to discuss dinner plans, and without any hesitation agreed to re-visit Pete’s.  When they arrived, the maître d’ warmly greeted them as return customers and offered the same table as their previous visit. The same server, after greeting them with sparkling wine and small appetizers, and recalling their previous evening’s menu choices, initiated what was to again be an equally tasty dining experience: their meals were cooked to perfection and the service was again very efficient. At the end of the evening when the check arrived, it included the same thank you card with the same two questions.

The three each answered “Totally Satisfied” and “Met Expectations”

As the executives began to leave, the restaurant’s owner approached and thanked them for coming back, but then asked what was wrong with their meal. A bit surprised, they responded that nothing was wrong and that the meal was again exceptional, just as they had expected. What had the owner missed?

For years, we have seen the evolution of Customer Experience. Many of us and our businesses have navigated through terms like Customer Satisfaction, Total Quality, and Loyalty. Now, Customer Experience is often considered to be the collection of personal and emotional assessments of a brand’s products, services, activities, etc., and how these collectively compare to an expectation (or goal) that may be based upon a recent similar experience or a prior accumulation of comparable experiences. Today, “Customer Experience” has become an essential term inserted into every marketing plan, job description, advertising campaign, and organizational outline, and it is sprinkled throughout titles at all levels in all industries.  The term, in some instances, has become over applied and, as all things over-used, risks becoming overlooked as consumers of food to healthcare to automobiles become numb to these two words. The importance, however, of paying attention to the underlying influences of the Customer Experience, particularly the impact of indicators like expectations, cannot be overemphasized.

Expectations are set when a new experience occurs, and they then become influenced by subsequent experiences. If a new experience “exceeds” expectations, unless it is refreshed or renewed by something better, it will eventually be drawn toward “meets”, displaced by the next new experience, or when the original exuberance for the first time becomes familiar, unchanged, or simply lacks the “wow” of its original novelty. Therefore, businesses and organizations must continually seek to achieve excellent performance, while exceeding each new customer’s first expectations, and then be able to sustain performance excellence for these customers while continually meeting their high expectations. Recognition and management of these dynamics will prompt strategies to sustain overall performance excellence, ultimately ensuring more confidence in future revenue, repurchase intent, and customer referrals.

Take Pete’s example. On the first night, the three guests had no prior expectation of Pete’s other than the concierge’s recommendation for good food and service. Pete’s was a new adventure, and each person probably had their own expectations, based upon other dining experiences. At the end of the evening, they had all enjoyed the memorable new experience, and Pete’s had exceeded and reset any prior expectations. The first evening’s experience was surprising and novel.

On the second night, each fully believed they would have the same excellent experience. As it turned out, their dinner was a repeat of the first evening. The food and service were excellent. Although the experience was identical to their first night, however, they had learned the plot of this adventure – it met the expectation already established the night before. Pete’s performance was again excellent, but it had not exceeded their expectations. Had they spoken with the concierge on the third night, they might have sought an alternative.

Despite recognizing these people were from out of town on business, and that they had been recommended by the hotel (which, by the way, was a highly recommended conference facility that drew large, multi-day corporate meetings and guests looking for good post-meeting dinners), Pete’s would have needed to introduce something substantially new, novel, or innovative for repeat customers to earn a repeat Exceeded Expectations rating. Although the staff was polite, friendly, and remembered the guests’ previous night’s meals, they could have offered a Chef’s special and a personal table visit, a different menu theme, an upgraded table, or an after-dinner cordial on the house. But, in this case, Pete’s would have also needed to weigh the costs involved to exceed these repeat customers’ expectations, versus realizing that a highly satisfied customer whose high expectations were met was certainly an achievement.

Back at the hotel, had the concierge asked them how they liked Pete’s after the first night, their response would have reflected their initial excitement. Had he asked them after the second night, the response would have been also positive. On the third night, however, they would likely have asked the concierge for an alternative venue, simply because Pete’s had met their expectations and they wanted something different. More importantly, if future groups of business travelers or conference attendees were to ask the concierge for restaurant recommendations, he would probably recommend Pete’s as a great place for one evening, based on this last group’s comments.

This is a story is about small businesses, but it is scalable to any organization that services customers. It is about 1) understanding the natural dynamics of how an experience that first exceeded expectations can then change between subsequent new and repeat experiences, and 2) the expense of trying to maintain the “exceed” level.  Finally, it is about how to effectively assess customers’ repurchasing behavior and their propensity to recommend, based upon overall performance and expectations.

At Pete’s, a “Poor – Fair – Good – Excellent” scale might have given a more appropriate assessment of performance, versus their broader satisfaction scale.  Also, the owner should have understood that on a repeat customer’s visit, an excellent rating, combined with meeting expectations, was a very positive outcome. Once he understood this, he might take solace in realizing the cost and effort to exceed these repeat customers’ expectations would be likely prohibitive.

Businesses often set a vague goal to “Exceed Customer Expectations” within job descriptions, performance goals, and even in their advertising. Successful and growing businesses, however, understand customer behavior by actively monitoring customer feedback and pro-actively conducting action-planning to achieve high Customer Experience levels. They engage employees and customers to assess opportunities to invest in new and refreshed experiences that will exceed customers’ expectations with innovation and exceptional customer service to sustain the energy of the Customer Experience.…always.

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Peter Swaim – V.P. Marketing – HorizonCX, LLC. | April 1, 2020

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