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It’s not what you deliver ... Featured

9:41am EDT July 22, 2002

The other day, I was reminded of one of the fundamental elements of success in any business, whether a for-profit or nonprofit, large or small. It’s called meeting the customer’s expectations.

One of our associates was discussing a new project with a number of people in the conference room at a client’s office. At one point, he asked a simple question. He wanted to know their expectations of us. A couple of people answered immediately; the others had to stop and think.

As it turned out, they all gave different answers. Each person in that room had a different perception of exactly what we would do for them. Needless to say, we stayed on the subject until everyone was in agreement as to just what the client expectations were.

“Exactly what is it that you are expecting us to accomplish for you?”

This is a basic question, and an important one. It’s something we ask clients, in one form or another, before we begin work on any project. As a service agency, we know that we’re going to be evaluated in a number of areas, such as creativity, content, cost, delivery schedules, etc. But we also know that most clients already have a picture — some clearer than others — in mind that defines for them what they think we’re going to be able to provide.

Their expectations of our work will probably be high, as they should be. We need to be able to grasp their vision, to understand exactly what they want.

The most important thing to remember, though, is this: Expectations are determined by the customer. It doesn’t really matter what you deliver unless it meets or exceeds those expectations. If you delivered a certain number of products or a certain amount of service, but your customer was expecting more from you, no matter how hard you worked, no matter how heroic your efforts were, regardless of what you did, the fact is that you failed to meet your customer’s expectations.

You may have met, or even exceeded, your own expectations. But the reality is that your expectations don’t count.

In the process of failing to deliver what your customer was expecting, you probably did some harm to your reputation. The time and money you’ve invested in advertising and/or public relations activities that describe who you are, what you do and how you do it better than your competition may have been wasted on the aforementioned customer. And as word gets around that you failed to deliver for this customer, others will hear about it.

None of this has to happen. You can eliminate many potential problems and misunderstandings as the meeting is progressing, or as part of its conclusion. Here’s how:

Ask the question. At some point, sooner as opposed to later, ask the customer what he or she expects from you. Ask directly.

Listen carefully to the answer. Be sure you understand the answer. Your success — or failure — with the project could be determined by what your customer says and how you respond. If the customer’s expectations go way beyond what you normally would deliver, this is where the discussion takes place to make their expectations more realistic.

Summarize aloud. At the conclusion of the meeting, summarize and read aloud the list of action items discussed — who’s responsible for doing what, when it’s due, and so forth, to make sure everyone understands what is expected.

Write a meeting report. As soon as possible, put together a meeting report with all of the action items briefly described, and send a copy to each participant.

If this sounds a bit routine, like something you do all the time, that’s excellent. Encourage others to do it, including your customers.

If it isn’t something you’ve been doing on a regular basis, consider incorporating the regimen into your meeting format from now on.

The results may be better than expected by you ... and your customers. Jeff Krakoff is president of Krakoff Communications Inc., a Pittsburgh-based marketing communications and public relations agency. Reach him at (412) 434-7718 or by e-mail at jkrakoff@krakoff.com.