In both the private and public sector, failing to properly understand customer needs leads to wasted money, time and energy. If customer satisfaction is subjective and influenced by expectations, an optimal customer experience strategy must also take expectations into account.
Service expectations are shifting. Or are they?
Any meaningful discussion must be grounded in an understanding of the nature of customer expectations and supported by the available data.
Service providers, both in the public and private sector, face a world where expectations are rising and the superior service offered by the very best companies is shaping what customers expect to receive from organisations across vastly different sectors. Or do they? For several decades, marketing researchers have recognised the importance of customer expectations, and there are a number of influential models that have attempted to explain the role they play in determining both service quality and customer satisfaction. However, despite the emphasis placed on expectations in marketing theories, there is remarkably little reliable quantitative data that shed light on how customer expectations have changed over time and how expectations might transcend traditional market categories. We understand less about expectations than we think we do, and far less than we need to.
Services and service expectations
Customer expectations are a complex and multi-faceted construct. As a result, it is almost impossible to define expectations in a way that is both concise and meaningful. In the broadest sense expectations represent prior beliefs that a consumer has about a service, which function as reference points during service encounters. However, most service quality and customer satisfaction models recognise that expectations occur in different forms and researchers have assigned different roles to different types of expectations.
The importance of expectations
Understanding customer satisfaction and service quality have been two key aims for marketing researchers. Consequently, the impact of expectations has been discussed widely within both fields.
The intersection of brand and customer experience
What does Ipsos's latest research say about the role of expectations? Data showing customers’ stated brand favourability before and after service encounters suggests that there is a potentially strong relationship between customer assessments of a recent service interaction and subsequent perceptions of the provider.
Measuring service expectations
It is important to distinguish between measures of customer expectations regarding a specific service encounter and measures of overall expectations of a particular service or provider.
Are service expectations increasing?
Past experience of a service provider is seen as a factor that determines future expectations.
It is worth pointing out that very little quantitative data exists that shows if customer expectations are changing over time. Some global data from Accenture (2013) suggests that between 2007-2013, customers have continually claimed to have rising overall expectations of customer service.
However, it should be noted that this data does not make it clear whether an overall increase in customer service expectations translates uniformly across service sectors and, more importantly, does not explain why customers might have higher expectations over time.
That customer service expectations are rising has become a truism. In some ways this dynamic nature of expectations is entirely intuitive. Technology has transformed many traditional services and facilitated entirely new services in ways that were scarcely imaginable only 20 years ago and it is likely that customer expectations have changed as a result. However, we should also recognise the potential for constancy in other elements of service expectations – for example in the expectation that services such as the NHS should fundamentally deliver the outcome of making us better when we are sick.
Part of the difficulty in understanding how service expectations might be changing is a lack of reliable quantitative data. Established tools such as SERVQUAL or critical incident surveys can begin to provide insights for specific service encounters but no methodology is perfect. This is mainly because it is very difficult to satisfactorily capture such a complex and multi-layered construct through relatively simple surveys. Emerging research techniques (for example those centred around neuroscience)may help tackle the practical dilemma of measuring expectations.
Despite difficulties in measuring expectations, we should not neglect their importance. They have historically been seen to play an important role in both customer satisfaction and service quality - both of which have been seen to be desirable goals for service providers. Our latest data also suggests that expectations have a role to play in understanding the link between the day-to-day of customer experience and overall brand relationships.
While data is limited, examining a model of the drivers of service expectations can ground further discussion. Indeed, this model can help to explain why private sector expectations might be rising and why there is some evidence that public sector expectations are falling. Crucially, here there seems to be a gap when looking at drivers of increasing service expectations beyond the merely transactional. What are the impacts of wider technological, social or cultural trends on our expectations as customers?
The liquidity of expectations might prove to be a further piece of the shifting expectations puzzle – particularly as commentators and organisations predict a future in which different technologies and services become increasingly interconnected. If there is truth to the notion that service expectations are transcending traditional market categories, we may see them rising faster in the future than they have done already. Measuring and understanding these new expectations is going to become even more important, and while we have scratched the surface here, there is a lot more we can learn.