How Customer Expectations Can Affect Your Conversion Rate


Richard Lee McNair was a convicted murderer.

He’d just broken out of federal prison and was on the run. Police were everywhere, and he needed to get out of sight fast. He ran for a few hours, until he was stopped by Officer Carl Bordelon.

For most prisoners, this is where the story would end, but McNair wasn’t your average prisoner.

McNair understood expectations and the role they play in selling.

He knew Officer Bordelon would have questions; but, more importantly, he understood the expectations behind the questions. He used those expectations so well that Officer Bordelon let McNair go within 10 minutes.

You and McNair have something in common.

Customers need you to manage their expectations. These expectations determine whether they’re satisfied with you (or not).

Satisfaction has a huge impact on your conversion rate and average order values. The more satisfied your customers are, the more they’ll buy. Yet, most of us are clueless when it comes to customer expectations.

Customers Have Fuzzy, Implicit, and Unrealistic Expectations

Customers come to you with expectations floating around inside their heads. The trouble is they don’t usually tell you about these expectations. They just assume you already know.

And, it gets even worse.

They hold you responsible for these expectations. That’s right. They expect you to already know how to keep them satisfied, and they’re unhappy when you don’t. Here’s the problem: a lot of businesses don’t know much about their customers’ expectations, which means their customers are chronically unhappy.

An important study defined the differences among these customer expectations:

1. The Fuzzy Expectation

Your customers expect a change but they have no idea what that change looks like. They’ll know it when you find it, buuut they can’t seem to tell you how to get there or what they expect.

Let’s say your customers have a fuzzy expectation they don’t bring up, and you don’t find it. They’re likely to feel (and believe) that your product or service was a letdown or unsatisfactory.

You know what happens next.

When you ignore their fuzzy expectations (because you didn’t know), your customers stop buying. Your average order values plummet. Customers switch providers, and then bounce around until they find someone that meets their unspoken expectations.

Example: A Fuzzy Expectation

Most businesses go through some kind of logo or brand design process. And, almost inevitably that process starts with fuzziness.

The startup or retailer wants to choose the right logo for their business. But, almost as often, they have no idea where to start. Many of them go through a process that’s a lot like this:

In this example, it’s presented as the customer’s fault. But, it’s actually the designer’s fault.

It’s your job to discover and anticipate your customer’s expectations.

2. The Implicit Expectation

Implicit expectations are things your customer believes to be “obvious” or “self-evident” when they are anything but. It’s all the general, yet unspoken, assumptions a customer makes when there’s familiarity with you, such as:

  • “You already know/have everything you need to give me what I want.”
  • “I’ve done this before so the process should be shorter, faster, and easier.”
  • “You know my business well enough that you don’t need to ask me to participate in the process anymore.”

Here’s the thing about implicit expectations: they become explicit when they’re ignored. As soon as customers figure out that you can’t read their minds and haven’t given them what they want, they’re unhappy. The expectation is treated as if it were explicit from the start.

That means – you guessed it – they find someone else.

Example: An Implicit Expectation

Vitamin retailer Vitacost had a problem. Customers wanted to order the same vitamins over and over. Normally, that’s great news, right? But, it came with an implicit expectation.

Customers expected Vitacost to save their orders and make it easy to re-order. (Vitacost sells lots of variations. Customers didn’t want to hunt for the same bottle of vitamin C each and every time they ran out.) Vitacost figured that out and came up with two options:

  • Vitacost saves customer orders as-is. When customers run out of vitamins, they can reorder the elements they need, without going through the hassle of “checking out.”
  • Customers can sign up for Vitacost’s “set and save” program, receiving the vitamins they order on a regular schedule.

Meeting customers’ implicit expectations increased Vitacost’s average order values.

3. The Unrealistic Expectation

Unrealistic expectations are expectations you’re either unable or unwilling to meet. Here’s the dangerous part about unrealistic expectations: they can be fuzzy or precise, implicit or explicit.

Customers could quite possibly be holding you responsible for something you (a) don’t know about, (b) can’t fix, and (c) wouldn’t fix even if you could.

These expectations make it tough to keep your customers. How are you supposed to make your customers happy when their expectations are so unclear?

Example: An Unrealistic Expectation

When we go to an offline outlet store, we understand certain things:

  • Retailers always offer deep discounts.
  • Products we see are on a first come, first serve basis.
  • When it’s gone, it’s gone.

But, most of these understandings go out the window online. Customers shopping at a store like THE OUTNET see deep discounts, but they’re a little foggy on the when it’s gone part, which frustrates them.

When shoppers find a great deal, they buy it. Then, they tell friends and family about it. Their friends and family rush online, money in-hand, only to see… This product is sold out.

If you’re a first time customer, this leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. Maybe you’re willing to try again with some encouragement, but most customers are gone, never to return.

These customers have unrealistic expectations. THE OUTNET should make that explicitly clear to customers.

Figure Out Where Customer Expectations Come From

Do you want to keep your customers? Then, figure out where their expectations come from.

How does that help?

The “where” shows you the questions you’ll need to ask. Customer expectations typically come from four places:

  1. Word-of-mouth: Someone recommends your e-store or SaaS app. Positive word-of-mouth creates high expectations that your customers bring with them when they visit for the first time. If you’re not prepared, your conversion rate will be terrible.
  2. Past experiences: Has your customer been burned before? Are they an experienced customer? Which sites (from their perspective) are doing things well? Is their overall experience positive or negative? If your customer has been used and abused by a competitor, you need to know.
  3. Marketing communications: Customers pay attention to your marketing, and everyone else’s. What are your competitors promising? What sorts of things do customers believe about your industry, product, or service? Are those the sorts of things you’re willing to commit to?
  4. Personal needs: Customers may be aware of their problems, but that doesn’t mean they know how to solve them. Fuzzy expectations, remember? Expectations develop around personal needs, so it’s a great place to start.

Discussion and follow-up questions change fuzzy expectations into precise ones. Revealing implicit expectations immediately makes them explicit.

Suddenly, it’s a whole lot easier to identify customer expectations.

Now, you’re ready to talk.

Get a few of your ideal customers together. You’re looking for customers that behave or spend the way you want. These aren’t the customers you accept just to pay the bills. They are the all-stars you love working with.

You want to focus your attention on a select few. You can’t meet customer expectations if the needs diversity is too broad.

Ask them about each of the above four areas. Get a discussion going. Use conference calls, Skype, Google Hangouts, it doesn’t matter. The goal here is to drill deep. Use these ideal customers as the basis for your changes.

Drilling deep gives you what you need to stop the free fall in your conversion rate.

Next, you have decisions to make.

Do you accommodate, edit, or reject these expectations? You’ll need to lay out a clear plan for each one.

If you accommodate a customer’s expectations, how far do you go? Where are the boundaries?

What if a customer’s expectation needs changing? How do you go about doing that? How do you handle it when customers don’t like the proposed change?

Then, there’s rejection. Some expectations shouldn’t be met. They may be unrealistic or difficult. Maybe the customer wants customization and/or options you’re not willing to give. How will you handle that?

Use the Right Tools to Shape Customer Expectations

There’s more than one way to shape customer expectations, and the method you choose depends on the results you’re looking for.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Shape Expectations with Process

If you’ve purchased a home, you know the process can be tedious and miserable. Lenda shares their process with you, reminding you about how much the traditional process sucks.

Then, they show you how their process eliminates those headaches:

  • You don’t have to visit the bank.
  • You won’t be harassed by telemarketers or sales people.
  • A refinance with Lenda has 3 steps instead of the usual 80.
  • They’ll show you every cost and fee, and explain so you understand!

Lenda has taken a horrible, sometimes nightmarish, process and made it hassle free.

Shape Expectations with Punishment or Reward

Auto insurance can feel like a money pit. You toss your money into the pit because it’s the law. You know you’ll never see it again. It’s no surprise that some customers hate paying for car insurance.

Allstate uses their Safe Driver Rewards program as a carrot to motivate their customers. They reward good drivers with checks and discounts. It’s a win/win.

They can always use the stick for bad drivers that cost them money.

Shape Expectations with Framing

People tend to avoid taking risks on things that are presented positively. What’s weird is that those very same people will suddenly take risks when marketers present them using a negative frame.

The Five Four Club understands a man’s expectations. They use negative framing to sell men on their solution to three very common, yet very manly, problems:

  • Men don’t have the time or energy to shop for clothes.
  • Men aren’t sure about what to buy.
  • Most men hate shopping.

Five Four Club to the rescue. They rub their customer’s face in the problems I mentioned. Then, they present their service as the solution to those manly problems. Win!

These are great, but they might not work for your business, which is okay. There are lots of ways to shape, guide, and nurture customer expectations. The important thing here is that you flush them out. It’s a whole lot easier to meet expectations you know about.

While you can’t really control your customers’ expectations, you can manage them. Use the right tools to show your customers that you understand their problem and that you have the solution. Give them a clear path and easy instructions to follow. Then, let them choose.

What If You Fail to Catch an Expectation?

How do you know you’ve caught everything? What if you miss something? It hardly seems fair to be held responsible for things you didn’t see coming.

This is where your target profile interview comes into play. Conducting interviews with your ideal customers enables you to start off on the right foot. Periodic interviews down the road keep you on track.

What if you’re caught off guard? Acknowledge that, and let your customers know how you plan to fix the problem. Then, fix it. Permanently.


Richard Lee McNair knew what Officer Bordelon expected. He tailored his story, managing his customer’s expectations, and he got away.

Manage your customers’ expectations, and satisfaction becomes automatic. Increased conversion rates and average order values are all but guaranteed.

About the Author: Andrew McDermott is the co-founder of Are missed expectations hurting your conversion rate? Download The Expectant Customer: Satisfaction on Auto Pilot to find out (no opt-in required).

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, we only recommend products or services we believe will add value to our readers.

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