Thursday, September 22, 2011

Disappointment stems from expectations

Fairly, or unfairly, people will create expectations based on the information they gather and process.  These brand expectations can be built from a number of difference sources:  consumer research, advertising, brand communication, first impressions and brand interaction to name  a few.  Expectations build the foundation of consumer impressions and ultimately determine whether the experience the consumer has with your brand is  positive or negative.

Is it possible to eliminate disappointment?  No, I don’t think so: it is unrealistic to try and please everyone all of the time and it’s strategically enviable: strategy is just as much about what you choose to do as what you choose not to do.  However, as a brand manager, you want to try and minimize the amount of disappointment consumers could face and promote positive brand experiences.  With expectations being built throughout the buying and consuming process (including awareness, shopping and post-purchase experiences), you need to control what is being communicated about your brand in a number of key areas.  These key areas include what your brand communicates, how it is advertised and what claims are made, how your product ‘works’ and how well you are able to support your customers and your product post-purchase.

And that’s the key: communication.  Misleading advertising, dishonest brand imaging and poor customer support can all lead to expectations not being met.  And missed expectations will lead to disappointment. 

There are many different industries and situations where this can be applied and it is almost certain you have had an experience with at least one of them: buying and servicing a vehicle, dealing with your Phone Company or ISP or dealing with your bank for your accounts or a loan.  One of the most difficult industries (and one that I’ve had a lot of experience with over the last 5 months in particular) is the airline business.  Largely regarded as one of the most difficult industries for creating and managing customer loyalty and retention, it is also one where controlling communication and managing brand experiences is especially critical.

For the past 5 months, I have been flying back and forth between Toronto and Washington DC regularly.  I’ve been flying with the same airline each time with few exceptions, and even at approximately the same time each flight.  Airlines have limited control over their service: you can maintain a safe aircraft, use state-of-the-art equipment with comfortable cabins and employ courteous and friendly flight directors to serve your passengers, but you have no control over the airport operations, the passengers on the plane and outside factors including airport delays or weather issues.  Flights have a scheduled time of departure, but there are so many outside forces influencing the aircraft’s actual departure that it is difficult to know if your flight will depart on time or not.   The difference between an airline that manages its brand well and one that doesn’t?  How  you communicate with your customer and how  you try to manage and meet their expectations.

It is understood that negative experiences are as much as 10 times more likely to be shared with friends and family than positives ones.  For example, when was the last time someone said to you “so I was flying this one time and my flight was on time…”  Thought so.

What does this mean for an airline?  This reinforces the need to communicate with passengers: are you able to warn your passengers about a delay ahead of time (a smart phone application?  An automated e-mail?).  Is there something you can communicate to your passengers to help them manage their expectations? (Can you keep them informed about recent developments?  Explain why they might be delayed? Not knowing something can be the most stressful part of the experience for a passenger when there is some kind of delay in their travels.)  Is there something you can do to make the situation better for your customers? (A snack or beverage allowance for flight delays? Something complimentary that would be outside of normal expectations?).  Airlines have one of the most volatile and uncontrollable market conditions possible, so a marketer has to determine if there is anything the brand can do to help manage expectations and disappointment.

But this is the nature of the beast.  What it comes down to is communicating.  Meeting expectations is a good starting point, but exceeding them is what you want to achieve.  This does not mean you need to set the bar low, it means you need to consistently strive to find a better way meeting your objectives and exceeding expectations.  

Author's Note: A big thank you to Kayla Kneisel for her extra set of eyes and thoughts!  Kayla may be starting her own blog soon so keep an eye out!