Every time my income goes up, expenses seem to rise to a point just above what I can afford. You may have noticed the same events in your life. After a week on a diet, I start to get used to less food. After a week off the diet… well, the less said about that, the better.
We humans are wonderfully adaptable creatures. It does not take much effort to find other examples where our expectations change as our situations change. Pop culture is full of tales of rock stars who need just the right mix of food in their dressing rooms, or of athletes finding a salary far higher than ours to be “unacceptable”. Similarly, we can find people who survive – and even thrive – in conditions that the industrialized world finds unacceptable.
This is a frequently overlooked problem in measuring customer satisfaction. It is increasingly common to find superlatives in mission statements, promotional materials, and surveys. Exceeds, surpass, and great – often with exclamation points – have taken the place of words like meets and satisfy. This change was well meant; nobody wants to have a merely mediocre experience. We want our employees to do a great job, to surpass the basic requirements, and exceed our expectations. Of themselves, these are not bad things.
When combined with real people, it gets troublesome.
Consider airline food. The first food on airplanes – a ham sandwich and apple or banana – was served in 1935. The first passengers fed that sandwich that on a long distance flight were probably grateful to get it – but within two years, passengers wanted quality hot foods. I remember my father’s descriptions of the first televisions: Small orbs in huge boxes, showing black and white shows only part of the day. Now, we expect not only continual programming – but also instant availability of shows we personally find fulfilling and enjoyable.
And let’s not talk about screen size.
Yet both of those examples are reliant on technological advances, not customer service. No matter how we try, the limits of our current technology serve as an upper constraint on consumer expectation. In the service industry, the concept of “exceeds” becomes much more fluid and dangerous. Employers rightly expect workers to make that extra effort to exceed our initial expectations. Yet even as they do, they change the customer’s expectations for the next and following encounters. At the same time, the customer does not expect the price of that encounter to change. If it does, then it is no longer exceeding their expectations. It has simply become a routine business exchange. The concept of exceeding expectations means that within short order our businesses become obligated to provide extra services without changing their income. Our employees become overworked and overstressed, leading to decreases in morale and later decreases in actual customer satisfaction.
When the standard becomes exceeding the standard, it risks inflated expectations, devalued service ratings, and decreased profits for everyone involved.
Striking the balance between high standards of excellence and inflated expectations is a difficult task that today’s business leaders face. We must retain high standards of excellence – in manufacturing and service industries. At the same time, exceptional service and quality should remain exceptional, and not be mistaken as the new norm.