Set realistic customer service expectations

In my last article, I argued that good customer service isn't about being available 24/7, it's about helping customers solve problems, and that hiring people who are empowered to do that normally means having them only work normal business hours.

But does the customer know that? Sure, I can write a 1,000+ word article explaining how 24/7 support isn't necessary, but your customers haven't read that, and they probably still think that high availability = good customer service.

The solution is simple: Set realistic expectations.

Expectations influence everything

Imagine two scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: You and a friend have plans to meet for dinner at 6:30pm. You show up and get seated, but your friend doesn't end up showing up until 7pm. 30 minutes late!
  • Scenario 2: You and a friend have plans to meet for dinner at 6:30pm. That afternoon, your friend texts you to let you know that they're going to get out of work late, so they won't be able to make it until 7. The two of you meet up at the restaurant then.

The two scenarios are almost identical, except in scenario 1, you expect your friend to be there at 6:30, and you're probably pretty angry that they're so late. In scenario 2, you knew what to expect, and you planned around it. You probably aren't the least bit upset about it. A situation can be extremely frustrating or perfectly fine just depending on your expectations.

In business, expectation-setting can be one of your most valuable tools when working with customers, especially when it comes to customer service.

Here's an example of this in action: We've always kept pretty standard 9-5 business hours. Back in the day, if a customer tried to contact us, they didn't have any idea when to expect a response. Sometimes this would cause people to get antsy and wonder if we're actually going to respond at all. Now, if they contact us outside of our business hours, we show them this simple warning saying that we won't be able to respond until the morning:

Our contact form explaining that it's outside our normal support hours, so we'll respond when we're back in the office.

That's seriously all it takes. I can't remember the last time I heard a customer complain about our support hours. But if they expected a response immediately, I bet we'd get angry comments literally every day.

More examples

Setting realistic expectations can help in almost every aspect of your customer interactions. Here are a few more examples of times we've taken advantage of this:

Limiting how we can help with imports

One of the first things new customers need to do after signing up for LACRM is import their contact list. This isn't all that hard if you know how to do it, but it's a bit of a pain to figure out the first time. Since most customers only ever need to run one import, it's not worth them figuring it out, so we offer to run imports for our customers. This mostly isn't a problem, but we had a handful of customers who needed to import new files all the time (like every week) and we just couldn't keep running these imports forever.

So we decided to impose a common sense limit: We'll import three of your files for you, and after that, we'll show you how to do it yourself. If we had just quietly imposed this limit with no further communication, I think we would have probably pissed off a decent number of users.

Instead, we set expectations. When a user fills out the form to have us run an import for them, we show them how many remaining imports we can run for them, and we have them check a box confirming that they want to "spend" one of those imports. This way, it's clear from the beginning what to expect, and when they get through their three free imports, they aren't at all surprised.

Pro tip: Have the customer check a box to confirm they understand something. We used to have a lot of text all over our app trying to set expectations, but customers wouldn't read the text. By requiring them to check a box before taking an action, it ensures that they understand the expectations being set.

Stating your hard stop at the beginning of a call

When we pick up an inbound call to our support line, we have no idea how long the call will last. This can be tricky if the rep answering the call has a meeting coming up and needs to end the call by a certain time.

In the early days, I'd handle this...awkwardly. I'd just start the conversation and hope it ended in time, but if it didn't, I'd need to abruptly end it in order to get to the next meeting. Now, I set expectations.

If I pick up the phone and it sounds like a customer might need a longer conversation, I'll say something like, "No problem, I'll be happy to help you out. I should mention that I have a hard stop in about 15 minutes, so if this ends up taking longer than that, we can just schedule another time to finish the conversation." This works 100% of the time. The person on the other end always understands, it's just a matter of communicating the expectations clearly.

Acknowledging the product's limitations

As the name implies, Less Annoying CRM is all about being simple and easy to use. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles that our competitors have. That means that it's pretty common for customers to want features that we don't have.

This could make demo calls a bit unpleasant. If a customer is expecting something more robust, they could be let down when they realize we don't do everything they want.

But instead, we set expectations from the very beginning that our product doesn't have a ton of features. It's as simple as saying something like, "So before we dive in, I just want to explain that LACRM is all about simplicity. That means that we don't have as many features as other CRMs, but the features we have are really easy to use."

No one ever blinks at that. It makes total sense, and you can almost assume it from our name. But saying that at the beginning comes in really handy later in the call. If they ask what kind of email automation we have, I can just say, "Yeah, so email automation is included in a lot of CRMs, and if that's a feature you really need, I can recommend some of our competitors that have that. But part of keeping things really simple for us is that we really just focus on core CRM functionality, and for email automation, we rely on our integration with Mailchimp."

Is that the answer they wanted to hear? No. But it makes perfect sense to them. They never get mad. Sometimes they take me up on the offer to recommend other CRMs. The vast majority of the time they still want to use LACRM. But 100% of the time they understand where we're coming from, because we set realistic expectations at the beginning of the call.

Applying this to your business

The above examples aren't meant to be universally applicable, but I can guarantee that there are opportunities to do similar things at your business. What are the things that customers sometimes get angry about? What are the changes you're afraid to make for fear of making customers angry?

In my experience, the vast majority of negative customer interactions can be solved by setting realistic expectations up front, and then living up to those expectations. It doesn't mean the customer will always choose you, but it at least means they'll have a positive opinion of your company, and you can avoid those nasty conversations that ruin your day.

Have thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear from you! I'm @TylerMKing on Twitter.
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