Managing Customer Experiences Starts with Understanding Customer Expectations


Customer Experience (CX) Management is on the rise — and there’s no sign of it stopping. According to Gartner, 81% of marketing leaders responsible for customer experience (CX) believe their companies mostly or completely compete on the basis of CX.  More than 5,000 organizations worldwide now have a dedicated CX leader, nearly half of whom report to the CEO.  “This increasing level of CEO oversight shows the importance of CX to the bottom line, hence the need for measurement,” says Ed Thompson, Distinguished VP Analyst, Gartner. 

Unfortunately, only 22% of CX leaders say their efforts have exceeded customer expectations, despite their best efforts.  Millions have been spent (or rather, wasted) on quick fixes and suboptimal data points. It would seem that companies would rather bypass intuitive customer feedback in favor of generic satisfaction surveys that yield few insights of any discernible depth.

If the Customer Experience is going to substantially improve — as it is so desperately crying out for — it will be solely reliant on a shift of focus from vague platitudes like ‘customer satisfaction’ to the much more concrete and measurable Customer Expectations.

In addition to survey data, many organizations now rely on journey mapping and human-centered design to analyze and improve their relationships and service.  As far back as the 1980s, as the CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, Jan Carlzon transformed his company and the hundreds of firms that followed his lead by introducing similar approaches.  Carlzon emphasized the importance of identifying and addressing what he called Moments of Truth. He and his followers insisted that success was created by optimizing each ‘memorable Customer Experience’ — experiences that would engender customer goodwill, brand loyalty and flawless corporate reputation. His seminal work  provoked the creation of an entirely new school of thought that has inspired breakthrough innovations in customer relationship management for nearly 40 years.

Interest in mapping customers’ experiences has endured the test of time. Yet poor or disappointing customer service is a continuous source of complaints, and organizations routinely fail to attain the results they envision. What could have possibly gone so wrong?

Perhaps it’s because those efforts typically begin from the wrong starting position. In recent years, Carlzon and other theorists have acknowledged the missing ingredient from their original recipe: a comprehensive understanding of Customer Expectations. We agree with their assessment.

The only real way to define ‘good service’ is with the knowledge of what the customer expected in the first place compared to their actual experience. Unfortunately, commonplace customer research and mapping the experience process typically skirt the idea of expectations; instead leaving it up to chance or, worse, the inherently biased guesswork of far removed CX executives.  Instead, using Customer Expectations data to drive Customer Experience Mapping optimizes the chances of targeting improvements that are of most importance to customers.

When utilized as a measure, Customers’ Expectations provide actionable insights; shedding light on the things that your customers deem most important to them and moving beyond the un-intuitive data mining of yesteryear. Only then will you truly understand your customers’ journeys and the basis upon which they are judging the impact of those ‘moments of truth.’

So, what are Customer Expectations?

‘Customer Expectations’ is a commonplace term and one that nearly everyone understands; at least at surface level. It’s so commonplace, in fact, that we tend to take its meaning for granted. Customer Expectations cannot simply be defined on each customers’ behalf — rather it is up to them to decide for themselves. Of course, that means that such information isn’t given up readily, and is certainly beyond the capabilities of the likes of the Net Promoter Score (NPS) to capture.

One type of ‘expectation’ is a prediction. For example, if I have consistently bad experiences with one provider, I might reasonably expect that my next experience will also be lacking. Another kind is what is called an ‘ideal expectation.’ In this sense, an expectation is a desired state. It defines the ideal attributes of a product, service, transaction or relationship as desired by the customer. The ideal is where we focus our attention as it provides the most useful baseline for success.

Using the methodology developed by our partners at Promising Outcomes, we learn the extent to which the actual Customer Experience compares to their ideal expectations. The heart of the theory is that — to a significant degree — customer judgments, motivations and actions are influenced by perceptions of how well the provider has performed to their ideal expectations. By aspiring to reach the ideal as a target, organizations can set meaningful goals for delivery and performance.

How will Customer Expectations data benefit us?

  • Measuring Customer Expectations and subsequently performance against them is the very goal of CX strategies, yet very few companies actually measure performance in this way. Thus, a competitor that did happen to utilize such a method stands to gain a significant competitive advantage.
  • The benefit to the organization is that it is using concrete customer data to direct improvement, not the best guesstimates of internal advocates. They are using data to make good investment decisions. As W. Edwards Deming famously said: “In God we trust, all others bring data!”
  • Accurate areas for improvement, and their priority level, can be precisely identified. Very few (if any) other methods can make this claim.
  • The data tells the truth. For some organizations this can be hard to stomach, but it remains vital if you want to commit to better customer relationships.
  • The organization can also understand how well it performs compared to competitors. This gives CEOs an unprecedented opportunity to differentiate. For public organizations, they are still competing with the standards set by customers’ perceptions of other industries.
  • Organizations that constantly seek customer-driven improvement are, ironically, far more successful or profitable than those that are primarily driven by finance.

Ultimately, it’s clear that Customer Journey Maps and other methods of Human Centered Design are best developed on a solid foundation of robust expectations that capture the authentic voice of the customer. Expectations gathering and mapping is the first step in developing highly focused, customer-friendly survey and diagnostic instruments that provide actionable data; for prioritizing improvements that truly make a difference to your customers; and for creating memorable Customer Experiences that turn your customers into loyal brand advocates. But the biggest payoff is a deeper understanding of your customers — profound knowledge that can point the way to organizational success.

For more information, please visit our website at or contact Chris Gonzalez at