great expectations

Apr 01, 2002 10:30 PM  By

A woman goes online to order a pair of black pumps. She enters “women’s shoes” into the search engine and chooses a site well-known in ladies’ fashion circles. (To protect the guilty, I will not name the company.) Employed at the firm is an operations type who makes a discovery that can save somewhere between 50 cents and $2 on each shoe order. He is able to get this “improvement” approved and it becomes part of the workflow. Back at home, two weeks have passed and the package, a shoebox wrapped in paper, has arrived. You can imagine the customer’s delight when she realizes that the shoes have been shipped directly in the box. No unwieldy cartons to cut open, no messy packing material to deal with! There’s only one problem: The shoes have been crushed in shipment. (The customer in question was my wife.)

Another woman (my mother, this time) orders some videos for my children. A message arrives stating that the order has been shipped. Order status is available with a click of the mouse. The package arrives early. The items are undamaged and are what were ordered. The charges are correct, and the packing slip is clear and concise.

Which scenario best describes your company? The first, the second, or something in between? How do you build an effective customer service organization and measure your success from the customer standpoint?

There are three components to achieving a positive customer experience: expectations, communications, and feedback. Of these, expectations are clearly the most important element, because so much of retailing success hinges on to the extent to which a shopper’s expectations are met. Therefore, you must set customer expectations that are realistic and achievable. You must also communicate clearly with your customers, and you must allow for their feedback and use that information throughout your firm to improve and refine all facets of the customer experience.

Do as you say

First, let’s focus on expectations. Most companies set two types of expectations: explicit ones, such as stating in the catalog that all orders ship within 48 hours, and implicit guarantees, such as the product being in stock and ready for sale.

Regarding the first expectation, I would recommend that you review all the information that your customer sees. Look at your ads, packing slips, Web site content, catalogs, and so on. Then write down every promise made. Now review each one with a critical eye. Ask whether you are capable of fulfilling it. If your catalog guarantees three-day order turn time, can you do it? Can you do it year-round? How about holidays? If not, what steps have you taken to alert the consumer to this?

The following are some explicit expectations that you may have set and that you should reexamine:

Delivery times

It cannot be stressed enough that delivery commitments be kept. If your company promises next-day delivery, does the item reach the customer the next day or is it the next day after you pick the order? If it is the latter, the customer won’t get the merchandise for three or four days. Imagine the late birthday or anniversary gifts or deadlines missed because of your company’s failure to meet this explicit expectation.

Customer service hours

Are they posted? Do you keep them? Do you post your time zone?

Returns handling

The sticking point here is how closely you follow your policy. Compare it with your ability to process returns all year. A slowdown during peak periods will cause the loss of many customers who will perceive you as having violated their trust. A good tactic is a quick-to-credit procedure that will not allow used or spoiled items to be returned. Of course, you must state this explicitly as part of the policy.

Shipping methods

Consider, especially, overnight and three-day carriers. If you say that you use UPS but use a combination of UPS and USPS services, you are going to have problems with military bases, Post Office boxes, and areas within the U.S. that don’t receive deliveries on a timely basis.


Examine them upon receiving and before shipping. Has the vendor presented the item accurately and honestly? Typical buyers work from sample products. Do the items received match the sample in quality and workmanship?

Merchandise packaging

Does your product package look exactly the way you present it to the customer on your site or in your catalog? For example, toy and game vendors provide still shots of products for advertising that may not reflect the actual packaging. Items arrive polybagged as opposed to packed in a five-color folding carton. Book publishers will sometimes substitute paperbacks for hardcovers and credit the difference. Are you still using the same SKU for both? Review all your products and packaging and address any deficiencies.

Color, size, and materials

These are particularly important for clothing merchants. Make sure that everything matches its catalog or online description.

Prices and promotions

Check and confirm that the price charged is correct and that all promotions have been considered and applied. This applies to customer loyalty programs as well. Is the customer aware of them? Are you crediting them correctly?

These are a few examples of explicit expectations to examine for accuracy. A review of all of your customer materials will provide you with many more. Living up to explicit expectations is the first and most difficult step in enhancing service, as well as the one that will affect your customers the most.

Implicit expectations concern mostly issues of common sense and operational competence. You imply, for example, that you have the product in stock at all times; that the correct products will be shipped; that each item will be packed and priced properly; and perhaps most crucial these days, that your operation will remain in business long enough to ship the order.

The best way to approach implicit expectations is to look at your operation from a customer’s standpoint. What should he expect as a matter of course or common sense?

Talk show

The next leg of the triangle is communications. I believe that this is the area where the wheat gets separated from the chaff. The days when the customer was willing to mail in her order and wait six weeks are pretty much over. At present, much more is expected of you.

There are two types of communications to focus on: active, when you contact the customer to provide information by phone, chat, or e-mail, and passive, when the customer obtains information on his own. An example of the latter would be the FAQ section of a Web site.

A top-tier company will provide a strong stream of active communication focused on providing useful information to the customer in a timely manner and in a simple format. Don’t assume that the average person is technically apt or cares to be. An example of an effective communication stream is as follows:

Confirm the order

Let the customer know that the order has been received. You must provide — by e-mail or phone — the shipping address, billing address, cost, order description, and shipping method. Mail order houses should ask for e-mail addresses.

Confirm shipment

Inform the customer that the order has been shipped. Supply the shipping date, carrier, ship-to address, predicted arrival time, tracking information, a thank-you, and maybe even a coupon for the next order.

Confirm arrival

Tell the customer that the order has arrived at its destination. This can be done only with carriers that provide delivery information, such as FedEx or UPS. This practice is especially impressive if the order is a gift. ProFlowers is one site that has incorporated this customer-centric method.

Handle problems

If there is a problem with fulfilling the order, contact your customers. Don’t wait for them to contact you. By being proactive, you will earn their respect and loyalty.

Passive information can be just as important in winning and retaining your customer. Again, make sure that the information is easy to understand and simple to access. Make the following functions available:

Order process tracking

The ability to track an order in progress seems to be very popular with a considerable portion of customers. But be aware that implementing this feature can be a service disaster if you haven’t taken the preparatory steps described above.

Order shipment tracking

This allows the customer to track the order through the carrier while in shipment — a simple addition that is, again, very popular.

Frequently asked questions

Keep the FAQ section of your Web site up-to-date. As issues arise from customer contacts, track and add them to your FAQ section. An effective FAQ section will reduce live customer contacts.

Triple axel

The third leg of the triangle is feedback. The time and effort invested to achieve the above will be of little value unless you can rate the effectiveness of the steps taken and how the customer is responding. The customer can tell you what site improvements you need, what problems are apparent in the distribution center, or that you are on track and doing a stellar job. The only thing you need do to get this valuable information is ask for it. How do you accomplish this? Read on:

Comment cards

Include a self-addressed, postage-paid comment card with each order. Ask the standard questions about the order, quality, and shipping, but also put in questions that would help other areas of your company like marketing or product research. Update the cards quarterly so that they don’t become stale and rote to your loyal customer base.

Focus groups

Bring in a cross-section of your customers and present new ideas or concepts to them. Ask them what you can do better. Focus groups are a must before you implement any major changes. They relieve you of the ready, fire, aim syndrome.

Third-party assessment

Some companies specialize in providing customer feedback as well as industry information. BizRate focuses on direct customer feedback, and BizMetrics tracks order turn times from receipt to delivery. BizMetrics also can provide industry-wide data.

Customer advisory board

This group should comprise customers who volunteer to provide feedback by phone or e-mail about selected issues. This method is a great way to get a snapshot of your performance as well as try out new ideas.

Customer service reports and feedback

Your customer service department is at the front line of the battle. They have direct daily contact with customers and can provide a plethora of information if you give them the tools to do it. Track all issues, keep a record of them, and react to them. Do not try to edit this information — put it out there so that you can address problems as well as pass along customer praise. Share customer service information with marketing, operations, merchandising, IS, and other areas. The feedback you receive is useless unless put into the hands of the people who can act on it.

Mark De Chambeau is a principal at De Chambeau and Associates Consulting. He was formerly vice president of operations at He may be reached at (508) 878-2727 or