Customer Service

Customer Service Series, Part 5: Exceeding Customer Expectations is Stupid

I just got done reading an excellent blog post by Dan Palotta on the Harvard Business Review site.  It’s called “I Don’t Understand What Anyone Is Saying Anymore,” and if you’re a lover of words — by which I mean, if you love words enough to care about them and hate seeing them being abused — you’ll definitely want to give it a read.

There was a lot of gold in Dan’s post, but the section that resonated most with me was the following:

Another term that has lost its meaning is “Let’s exceed the customer’s expectations.” Employees who hear it just leave the pep rally, inhabit some kind of temporary dazed intensity, and then go back to doing things exactly the way they did before the speech. Customers almost universally never experience their expectations being met, much less exceeded. How can you exceed the customer’s expectations if you have no idea what those expectations are? I was at a Hilton a few weeks ago. They had taken this absurdity to its logical end. There was a huge sign in the lobby that said, “Our goal is to exceed the customer’s expectation.” The best way to start would be to take down that bullshit sign that just reminds me, as a customer, how cosmic the gap is between what businesses say and what they do. My expectation is not to have signs around that tell me you want to exceed my expectations.

I admit that the marketing function, of which I am the titular head around these parts, only has a tangential relationship with the process of delivering “customer service.”  But there is one area where we have a measurable impact on the customer experience, and that’s in the area of the things we say and the words we use to say them.

When I took over the ServInt marketing department nearly a year ago, one of the first things I did was set up a task force to strip hyperbole and meaningless marketing-speak out of our web site.  It wasn’t hard — compared to many companies, ServInt hadn’t fallen into the trap of promising too much nonsensical wonderfulness to its reader/customers.  Perhaps more important:  ServInt didn’t have to lie about how great its products were — we could tell the simple truth.  In any case, we resolved to only say those things that our readers might consider interesting, important or useful.  We called that “actionable intelligence,” and anything that didn’t fit that description had to go.

All too often, people stop assessing the beauty of a web site at its appearance.  That’s because a beautiful web site makes readers feel good, and a reader that feels good is a reader who will buy things from you.

But too many words — words that say the same thing over and over again, or try hard to say something and never actually do, or just plain say stupid things — can make a beautiful web site ugly.  The reader’s head swims, his or her eyes glaze over, and — click — they’re gone.

I’m happy to say that since we undertook a thorough housecleaning of the words we use to describe our company, the rate at which site visitors “bounce” out of our site is down dramatically.  They’re viewing more pages, and exploring more content — even though the number of actual pages we have on offer was reduced.  Most important, visits to our ordering page are way up — nearly 22 percent compared to the same time last year.

The point here is:  words matter.  Using them well can make you money, and abusing them usually costs you.  So choose them well.

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  1. Andrew, I'm delighted to provide a gotcha. Other than that, I'm sure you feel your boss is almost perfect in every way! ------------- Fritz, Thank you for giving Andrew some needed sh*t.
  2. That's really funny because as my boss, Fritz is often scolding me for my use his most hated punctuation mark: the exclamation point. I think we may have eliminated all but one from at his urging. Way to call him out, Keith!
  3. Sorry -- I meant "stuff." Funny "stuff." Please excuse the inappropriate language -- or "l*nguage," as the case may be. FS
  4. Now THAT is some funny sh*t, Keith! Thanks for your comments and for the exclamation point catch. Seriously, I laughed out loud -- big, shiny, gold star for you! FS
  5. You had me there. As a marketing post, it was totally exceeding my expectations. A brilliant paradigm shift was before me. You were putting points on the board. Then it all ended with an exclamation point, the most abused character of all. I'm crushed. OK, mildly let down. Despite my exclamatory letdown, the Servint web site is a model of usability and clarity.
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