Meeting, exceeding and managing expectations

It’s sometimes difficult for a Product Manager to know whether customer expectations are there to be met or exceeded. Exceeding them has always struck me as the best way to deliver customer delight; merely meeting them must be the absolute bare minimum. Project & programme managers, on the other hand, often argue that exceeding expectations is setting the bar unnecessarily high, and that if expectations are set correctly in the first place, the objective should be to meet them.


But marketing messages can set expectations at an altogether different level. Are we reading too much into them? Are we being blinded by numbers and facts without questioning their relevance? For example:

  • smartphone display window made from Gorilla Glass is strong enough to withstand the weight of 10,000 elephants (yes, ten thousand) before it cracks.
  • A standard family car with a normal range of 800 miles can, with careful driving, cover more than 1,600 miles on a single tank of fuel.
  • Home broadband can deliver rates of up to 100 Mb/s.

These figures aren’t just hype – they are accurate reflections of what’s possible. They’re not strictly “exaggerations” – they have been measured and demonstrated. But they’re not always entirely realistic – sometimes the only way they can be achieved is under strictly controlled conditions (see caveat below).

Somehow, we’re still being convinced that those figures are more readily achievable than they are in practice. We’re being swayed by the marketing, and only when the delivered performance doesn’t match our expectations do we become aware of the small print which defines the controlled conditions needed to make it happen. Even though we know what’s going on, we make the same mistake again and again.

So what’s going on here? Who’s at fault? Can we believe claims of “blistering speeds” and record-breaking ranges? Are we victims of over-selling and under-delivering?

I think there are several separate issues at play:

  • We’re sometimes measuring (and quoting) the wrong parameter. Is raw bitrate the right parameter for broadband speed? Is “strength” the right thing to be talking about for smartphone display windows?
  • We’re not good at understanding the context of the claim. This is often in the small-print, but sometimes the claim isn’t actually ever made – it is assumed to be there “by association” – see below.
  • We’re running out of superlatives. With technology progress, speeds become greater, efficiency becomes better. How can we follow “blistering” speeds, “ultimate” efficiency and ten thousand elephants?
  • We can always find champions. While doing research prior to purchase, it is always possible to find someone who confirms that the figures are genuine; that they have first-hand experience to back it up; and their positive tone make them all the more believable. “It’s got the latest version of Gorilla Glass, so you can even drive over it“; “It’s so fast that I can download full length films in seconds“.

The smartphone, automotive and broadband facts above are genuine. It is sad that years of over-selling by, for example, home broadband providers has led to a good deal of skepticism so it is refreshing to see there is good evidence to confirm Virgin’s 100Mb/s service lives up to these claims. Is it too late? Has the damage already been done? Maybe yes, for people who have lived with under-performing broadband for too many years.


When I took a tumble with my phone still in my hand, the results were spectacular. The phone was only a few months old and until then in excellent condition. It never left my hand when I fell but the phone was rendered unusable.

Nowhere in any marketing material does my phone ever claim to be bullet-proof, drop-resistant or anything like it. But it does clearly state that the display window is made from Gorilla Glass, which we know to be very strong. A small bit of research reveals the 10,000 elephants claim which, because of its visual appeal, is easy to spread virally.

I am a great fan of Corning’s Gorilla Glass, and their continuous investment in new developments convinces me that we will see glass used in many more products in the future, but for this to happen, the glass needs to be less prone to “normal” damage. Perhaps this is where OEMs need to pay particular attention by following the design rules to ensure that components such as display windows meet customer expectations when integrated into the product.

A phone needs to survive many everyday dangers, including occasional drops and the considerable bends and twists imparted by being sat on in a rear pocket. As Jeff Evenson, SVP and Operations Chief of Staff at Corning confirmed, it’s not just “strength” which is needed – it’s “damage resistance” too. But that’s altogether more difficult to define a measure for – and probably won’t include reference to elephants.

LCD-Sports-WristwatchThe owner of a wristwatch which quotes “water resistant to 30m” might be surprised to learn that according to the official classification of water resistant markings, such a watch is only splash/ rain resistant and absolutely NOT suitable for use in even a bath, shower or pool. How well are watch designers managing the expectations of their customers by using a figure of 30m for a watch which won’t necessarily survive a bath?

Perhaps what is needed is a more tangible relationship between expectations and reality.

  • The automotive industry created standardised tests for measuring fuel consumption – requiring manufacturers to quote urban, extra-urban and combined fuel consumption figures giving a more realistic indication of the performance which we can expect.
  • The banking industry created the Annual Equivalent Rate (or Effective Interest Rate) to provide a more realistic indication of interest, and enabling a better comparison between products.
  • Weather forecasters usually quote the wind-chill factor during the winter months because it gives a more realistic indication of what it will feel like.
  • Printer manufacturers started using a cost-per-page to allow the cost of consumables (ink) to be realistically compared and for total cost of ownership to be calculated.

I wonder whether these examples demonstrate how such measurements have matured in established fields. Do we now need more realistic measurements for these newer fields? Instead of measuring broadband speeds in Mb/s should we be looking at times to download a (nominal) 4GB film in much the same way as PVR capacity is quoted in number of hours of TV in addition to raw capacity in GB?DownloadTimes

“Managing expectations” is usually a euphemism for “lowering expectations” – maybe what we’re looking for is not necessarily “lower”, but “more realistic” expectations.

So before we start debating whether it’s better to meet or exceed customer expectations, perhaps we should spend some time setting expectations – and in order to do that we need more realistic ways of measuring performance.

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