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AH vs. Jumbo: 4 tips on “exceeding customer expectations”
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AH vs. Jumbo: 4 tips on “exceeding customer expectations”

In my work, I get to guide companies in defining strategy and translating it to employees. What strikes me about this is that nowadays everyone wants to “exceed customer expectations.” Customer delight (and the related 9+ customer experience) has been hot for a few years now. But what does this really do for you as a company? Find out from the following practical examples.

Do exactly what the customer expects: no less, but no more either.

Peter Geleen – iPM Partners

As a company, do you also exceed customer expectations?

First of all: exceeding customer expectations is not the holy grail you hope for. Only a few companies are truly able to achieve this. The critical question I always ask clients is whether they really want it. From an operational excellence strategy perspective, one can argue that exceeding customer expectations is a waste. Do exactly what the customer expects: neither less nor more. The key is to eliminate tasks that do not add value, and that principle applies to anything extra (read: too much) you do as well.

However, for many industries, the years when operational excellence alone was a good strategy seem to be over. More and more organizations need to differentiate themselves through service around their product. Exceeding customer expectations can therefore be useful in my opinion and lead to a positive customer experience. However, this only holds true if you take the following tips to heart.

The strategy is often implemented top-down, and too little attention is given to the employees. If exceeding customer expectations is part of that strategy, it is expected too easily that the employees understand the behaviors associated with it. The management does not devote enough attention to guiding employees to do it well. The concept of “exceeding customer expectations” is quickly abandoned, and then you get situations like the video below from Albert Heijn:

Apart from the fact that this video makes me cringe due to its style, it also shows that AH Amstelveen, at least, has not understood it. In the video, the following are identified as exceeding customer expectations: stepping aside for customers who want to pick something up, accompanying the customer when they have a question, and responding to the customer within 10 seconds.

This does not constitute surpassing customer expectations; it merely meets customer expectations at best. (And let’s momentarily set aside the absurdity of a tobacco saleswoman keeping a leek in her drawer.)

This brings me to the following tip:

Don’t invest too much time and energy in exceeding customer expectations if you haven’t got the basics in place.

Please take my word for it that shockingly few organizations have the basics in place. When we guide organizations on their journey towards better results, getting the basics right takes up about 80% of the time. In the remaining 20%, we delve into new things. Why is it so important to have the basics in order? Research from Harvard Business Review shows that the negative impact of not meeting customer expectations is four times greater than the positive impact of exceeding customer expectations.

Note that the means by which customer expectations were exceeded does not determine the new standard.

Exceeding customer expectations with the same action has an expiration date. Nowadays, when I contact Coolblue, I expect a handwritten card. When I make a purchase at Parti (a nut store), my daughter receives a box of raisins. This once exceeded my customer expectations, as well as my three-year-old daughter’s (who was overjoyed – as happy as can be). However, it has now become the new standard. In fact, when I recently took my daughter to Parti and she didn’t receive those raisins, all hell broke loose. Therefore, be aware that if the means by which you exceeded customer expectations has become the new standard, you must use this means to meet customer expectations. This is not what you want because ultimately, it will backfire: costs increase, and you no longer benefit from it. Exceeding customer expectations requires creativity, and something new must be thought of each time. This brings me to the fourth tip:

Hire creative individuals and give them autonomy.

Keep in mind that what may exceed one person’s customer expectations can be perceived as annoying by another. Personally, I find the question “Did you find everything you were looking for?” at the checkout counter of Albert Heijn irritating and insincere. It is as if I wouldn’t have asked myself. However, someone else might find it considerate. The point is: it is exceptionally challenging to establish proper policies in this regard, and it requires creativity at all levels of the organization. People who have customer interactions make the difference, and they need to have a sense of empathy for the person in front of them. This applies not only to salespeople but also to technicians, planners, or drivers. They all have customer contact. These individuals should embody the mindset (DNA), fully understanding when they meet customer expectations and when they surpass them. Subsequently, they should be granted the freedom to make decisions on their own. I had the opportunity to assist an employee of a company who was surprised that his boss allowed him to send a €12 cake to a customer, despite the customer’s order amounting to over a hundred thousand euros. Clearly, there is still work to be done.

albert heijn jumbo

But how then?

A good example where employees have the authority to exceed customer expectations is Jumbo. Personally, I (or rather, my friend) always do my shopping online. When I recently went to the pickup point in Venlo, it turned out that the pre-cut endive was out of stock. The employee said, “Unfortunately, we ran out of pre-cut endive, but I’ve included some uncut endive for you. It’s on the house.” At that moment, I was more satisfied than if they had provided the pre-cut endive. (However, my expectation would have truly been exceeded if I had received something delicious instead of endive, but that’s beside the point. In that case, my friend’s customer expectation would have been undermined.)

Jumbo in Rothem (South Limburg) recently took the cake. When my parents were on vacation there and realized in the store that their wallet was still in the caravan, an employee overheard their conversation. My parents left the store extremely surprised, with groceries in hand and without paying. By now, they – and I hereby – have shared this story so many times that the €25 worth of groceries was probably well worth it.

I described several personal experiences above. Whether Jumbo actually has this better organized than Albert Heijn, or whether it is just a coincidence, I don’t know. That’s not the point. What matters to me is that managers can make use of the 4 tips that I have outlined here. If you would like to discuss this topic further with me, feel free to contact me.

Finally, I thank you. You have read my blog until the end. I gather from this that I have at least met the customer’s expectations, otherwise you would have stopped reading. Whether I have exceeded them? Only you know, but I would love to hear your feedback.

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