The Straw that Broke the Market’s Back

First published May 9, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Customers are fickle — and I suspect they’re getting more fickle.  Perhaps they’re even feeling a little entitled.A recent survey shows that customers tend to bail on a company not because of a big time screw-up, but because of the accumulation of a lot of little annoyances. Soon, their frustration reaches a tipping point and they look elsewhere.

It would be easy to point the finger at the companies and demand that they get their collective acts together. But I suspect there’s more at play here. It would be my guess that customers are getting harder to please.  And I would further guess that the Web is largely to blame. I think it comes down to a constant rise in our collective expectations, while the reality of our experiences fall behind.

The balance between our expectations and the actual experience determines our loyalty to any course of action. If we have low expectations and a poor experience, we aren’t really surprised, which dampens our subsequent disappointment and leaves us more willing to forgive and forget.  If we have low expectations but a good experience, we’re pleasantly surprised, making us more apt to return. If we have high expectations and a good experience, we get a double hit of happiness. First, we enjoy the anticipation, then we appreciate that the experience actually lives up to our expectations. For a vendor, the scariest scenario is the last of the four: high expectations but a poor experience. In this case, we walk away disappointed and frustrated.

Now, balancing expectations and experience wouldn’t be that difficult for any moderately competent company if those expectations were realistic. But I suspect that more and more of us are entering into our respective experiences with unrealistic expectations. We’re setting our vendors up to fail.

Expectations are set partly based on our past experiences, but they’re also set by the experiences of others. We create our expectation set points based, in part, on what we hear from others.

The Web has created an open, accessible market of experiences and hearsay. We hear about the bad, a feedback loop that increasingly is calling out poor customer service. But we also hear about the good.  Correction – we hear about the exceptional. The “good” is not remarkable. It generally falls within our expectations and so goes without comment. But either the very good or the very bad is exceptional, and we are more apt to comment on it online. Not only do we comment, we also embellish, accentuating the plusses and minuses to make it a better story. Therefore, what we hear from others sets either a very low or very high bar. We steer clear of the low bars, but the high bars stick with us, contributing to the setting of future expectations.

The other thing the Web has done is create expectations that overlap domains.  Previously, when our expectations were set based on our own experiences, they tended to stay domain-specific. We had an expectation of what it would be like to buy a car, stay at a hotel, eat at a restaurant or purchase a new pair of shoes. With the Web, cross-pollination between domains is increasingly common. A head marketer for a well-known industrial manufacturer once said to me, “When it comes to online experience, my competitors are not the traditional ones. I’m competing against Amazon and eBay. That type of experience is what people expect.”

This “nudging up” of expectations is done without much rational consideration. We don’t care much for the reality of operational logistics in any particular domain. We just want our expectations to be met, no matter where those expectations might come from. And when they’re not, we pull the plug on that particular vendor, assuming another vendor can do better in meeting our inflated expectations. The Web has also engendered a virulent “grass is always greener” view of the world. We know a competitor is just a click away (whether or not that vendor is any better than the incumbent).

I’ll be the first to call out a bad customer experience, but when it comes to the increasing fickleness of customers, we should remember that there are two sides to this particular story.

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