Managing Expectation Gaps

Most of us deal with managing expectations or our belief of what will occur in the future on a regular, if not daily basis.  While expectations come in different sizes or orders of magnitude, they all possess the capability of impacting our feelings, attitude, and interaction with others.  For example, think about how our expectations regarding regular things, such as traffic on our commute, friendliness of a cashier, interaction with our spouse, behavior of our children, or even flavor of a meal can impact our moods, if our expectations are not met.  The heart of the issue with even these simple examples is the gap between the expected and actual outcome.   In essence, the expectation gap encompasses those situations when reality does not meet our desires.

In the workplace, a wide expectation gap not only impacts morale, but also leads to lower levels of productivity and staff turnover. How does this happen? In the simplest sense, as the gap widens employees feel more disappoint and anger. As the anger increases, an employee may stop performing his or her work and begin interfering with others.  While some employee expectations may be unrealistic or addressing their desires may be impossible, a successful manager will ensure that he or she has a good understanding each employee’s expectations and assists in managing those expectations.  

So, how strong are we as managers at assessing expectations? In order to gain a basic snapshot of the alignment between employee expectations and manager perceptions, the result of a recent survey of 500 employees at three levels (support, professional, and manager) in ten customer-focused organizations will be utilized to further our discussion.  The data was collected through an ARG study that inquired regarding employee expectations for the following categories: nature of work duties, workplace environment, supervisor’s leadership capability, fairness of advancement, and rewards.

Figure 1 summarizes the indexed results of employee expectations for all categories, manager perceptions of employee expectations, actual level of realized expectations, and gap between employee expectations and actual level realized.   Overall, the survey indicates that:

  • support staff possess the highest expectations compared to professionals and managers;
  • managers perceptions of expectations align the closest with employee expectations at higher levels in the organization (professionals and managers);
  • managers of managers perceive higher expectations than those expectations actually present among their direct reports;
  • support employees have the largest expectation gap; and
  • professionals and managers realize outcomes closer to their expectation than support staff.
Figure 1: Comparison of Employee Expectations and Manager Perceptions

While by no means are these findings definitive, they provide a basic outline of where expectation gaps may arise in organizations.  If support staff tend to have higher expectations related to work environment, leadership, and advancement as well as have less of their expectations met, managers need to make sure that frequent, honest, and transparent communication establishes a realistic level of employee expectations.   Similarly, if managers of managers have a better idea of the expectations of their direct reports, there may be a training or mentoring opportunity for less experienced managers.   Finally, expectations can change very quickly with the level of connections present within social media.  Getting to know your workforce and their expectations at all levels is not a “once and done” process, but an on-going journey.

Good Customer Service: How to Get There

“In order to compete in a truly customer-driven manner, an enterprise must integrate its entire range of business functions around satisfying the individual needs of individual customers – not just marketing, customer service and sales, but production logistics, and financial measurement and metrics.” Enterprise One to One by Don Peters and Martha Rodgers

Customers are the lifeblood of any unit or organization.  Regardless if you work for an internal or external function, you still have customers who are the basis of your existence.  It is easy to become consumed with our expectations, processes, or operations and forget that we exist to serve.   If you are a human resource professional, you have multiple customers that can even find themselves on opposite sides of the same issues.  If you are a manager, you have to deal with multiple customer needs, expectations, and resources to make sure you meet as many of your customer’s needs as often and efficiently as possible.

We live in an age of immediate response due to the web and social media.  Before the Internet, a dissatisfied customer would tell approximately 16 people about their bad experience.  Today, an unhappy customer can literally reach tens of thousands or more.  With more than 800 million people actively using Facebook, and each with an average of 130 friends, it does not take long for the word to spread. includes numerous examples of poor service captured by cell phone video cameras as well as well written and filmed concerns of past customers of major corporations.  In other words, the Internet makes it nearly impossible to hide bad service from others that might use your product or service.

What does this cost your organization? It costs revenues.  Most customers once dissatisfied rarely come back and along the way spread the word that you are not someone to do business with in the future.

To ensure that you are doing the most for your customers, you have to understand their wants and needs.  There are three key things that you should know about your customers:

  • What do they want?
  • How are you doing at providing what they want?
  • How can you improve the customer experience?

You need to understand who your customers are and what they really want.  Before the 1980’s it was common to assume that most customers wanted the same thing.  Media and cultural norms established a basic prototype of expectations that most people sought.  Today, we live in an age of supreme diversification.  Each of us can have it our own ways and it is right to make sure that is what is being offered.  Consequently, the first step in knowing your customer is determining what each customer segment really wants.

How well you are providing for your customers is the next question to pose to those that you serve.  What customers want is the customer experience.  The customer experience includes more than just the outcome.  I may be very happy with the quality of the food at my favorite restaurant, but if it takes two hours and cost $200 dollars, my experience was probably not a favorable one.  The customer experience pertains to how well you match your offering to my needs, process for delivery (accessibility, friendliness, quality, affordability, timeliness), and overall result.

Finally, customers want to be asked how satisfied they are and have their suggestions taken seriously.  Most customers want this process to be quick and unobtrusive, but they still want to the chance to weigh in on their experience.

Once we have this information, the difference between knowing and excelling is how the information is utilized.