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Great expectations: why consumers demand the very best

“Why can’t you be studious like your friend, Alison?” pleaded my mom to 14-year-old punk me, a 14-year old punk kid, in pure exasperation. Until then, my creative interpretation of school rules and my comfort with a fluctuating GPA had been reluctantly tolerated as a disappointing normal. After all, I was the oldest in the family. No one was setting expectations. But recently I’d befriended a few of the scholarly kids at school, and my mom now had living proof that not every eighth-grader was a Grade-A slacker. The bar was raised. And despite the fact that I’d never shown an interest in being “the best,” I was now expected to be in equal standing with those who did.

My mom was undergoing a phenomenon known as expectation transfer. It happens when someone shifts his or her experience from a person/place/thing into an expectation of another person/place/thing. It’s a natural reaction to witnessing the possibility of a better way and expecting it for yourself. It’s also probably what’s fueled a fair share of therapy sessions for anyone with a perfect sibling.

Recently, this phenomenon has taken on relevance far beyond the personal realm. In fact, it’s what’s driving today’s consumer economy.

All we want is a lifetime of perfect moments

Not long ago, we somehow survived without Google, Amazon, and Twitter to deliver information, goods, and news in nanoseconds. Once we got a taste of that speed and access, though, it didn’t take long to get hooked. Now we turn mutinous if load times are seconds slow, retailers can’t accommodate same day shipping, and customer service doesn’t respond within minutes on social media—even though most of us have lived without these time-saving luxuries for much of our lives. As customers, we’ve grown a bit demanding.

But it’s not really our fault. Online giants like Google and Amazon found their success in the democratization of consumer ease. Anyone can have anything at any time. Just type your request, click a button, and boom, it’s yours. This low-effort high-yield consumer environment has resulted in our current state of business, the expectation economy: an economy of well-informed consumers who expect, nay demand, the highest-quality service, product, and experience in every brand interaction. In fact, according to Gartner, 2017 is the year where 89 percent of marketers expect customer experience to be their primary differentiator. But, here’s the rub, with every great experience we witness or have with one platform, service, product, or brand, we raise expectations for all platforms, services, products, and brands—regardless of industry.

With every great experience we witness or have with one platform, service, product, or brand, we raise expectations for all platforms, services, products, and brands—regardless of industry.

David Mattin, head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching believes the expectation transfer happens in customer-business relationships when an innovation serves a basic need in a new way, and therefore sets new customer expectations. Mattin uses the ubiquitous rideshare app, Uber as his shining example, “Uber helped to create new expectations and those expectations spread, becoming the now well-established trend known as on-demand. That's expectation transfer: the mechanism by which new innovations from around the world shape what your customers will soon expect from you [the business].”

In our Uber-driven world, on-demand mobile-first businesses like Postmates, a delivery service, Washio, a laundry service, and Soothe, a delivery massage service, are the norm. And businesses that don’t evolve to meet consumer expectations for on-demand satisfaction—or at the very least invest in an interactive mobile app—will suffer. If this constant need to reach a higher standard sounds like a nightmare for businesses, sorry, this consumer trend isn’t going anywhere. Businesses that address the trend will and do succeed.

Why can’t you get it right? Someone else has.

One Medical is one of these businesses raising the bar. A national primary care provider, One Medical feels like Uber, Pottery Barn, and the world’s friendliest doctors rolled into one experience. The One Medical app allows you to make appointments 24/7 (or no appointment with the “Treat me Now” option for common maladies). Its offices are beautiful, sunny, and welcoming with pitchers of water and Emergen-C on hand. The friendly staff handles complex insurance questions for you by getting on the phone to cut through the bureaucracy. Best of all, the physicians actually talk to you during your appointments. To top it off, 95 percent of the physician appointments start on time or earlier. One Medical is the antithesis of every drab, uncomfortable, hurried, and confusing doctor’s office experience. It’s so damn good, that as a member myself, I now get irrationally angry when other health providers can’t provide the same level of customer experience. If One Medical innovated through broken models to improve patient experiences across the nation, why can’t my local dentist office get it together?

“We care deeply about service and convenience,” says Leia Vetter, One Medical’s West Coast VP of Operations. “When we launched One Medical, we looked at the most prominent headaches that came with seeing the doctor, like friction when trying to book an appointment, waiting ages for your appointment to start, and sitting by yourself in an exam room in a cold paper gown. We decided to rebuild the whole experience to make it higher touch, higher quality, and service oriented.”

And it’s not just customers like me who are happier with the new model. “Any time you put your customer at the center of your service design, the experience will improve for everyone. At One Medical, providers get to spend more time with each patient, really engage with their patients’ health, and be a true partner in helping people resolve medical problems and achieve their wellness goals. Even though the customer is at the center of that experience design, you’ll find pretty much everyone who works as part of that experience is delighted by these improvements,” says Vetter.

Raise expectations; create demand

Raising customer expectations to win new business is a high-stakes game, but it’s where the most innovative companies have and will find their footing says Mattin, “If you want to know what people will want next, stop looking at customers and start looking at successful businesses and the expectations they create.”

Raising customer expectations in order to win new business is a high-stakes game, but it’s where the most innovative companies have and will find their footing.

To see the proof of this assumption, many of us simply need to look in our pockets. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he surpassed all expectations and immediately created consumer demand for well-designed, intuitive, and smart personal technology devices. Every other phone suddenly needed to be intelligent and user-friendly. Years later, our reliance on iPhone-like technology has driven the innovation of everything from apps to wearable technology--all while raising expectations for faster, time saving, well-designed experiences. Now, even Apple hasn’t been able to keep up with the high expectations it created.

More recently, the Uber effect has been cited as the catalyst for a new type of change that is immediate, easy, personalized, and focuses squarely on the customer experience. Even for things as far-reaching as archaic bank systems. Bank Mobile is a new way of banking built to meet mobile, on-demand customer expectations in an unchanged industry, “Our goals are to disrupt an industry that currently profits from its customers’ mistakes and start a movement to financially empower Americans across the nation.” In their book, Why Can’t Banks Be As Easy As Uber, authors Jay and Luvlee Sidhu explain why banks are mired in their own bureaucratic shortcomings and why they chose to create a new option.

As customers want more, and are willing to pay for it, we should expect to

The perks effect

Expectation transfer isn’t just shaping the business-consumer relationship, it’s also shifting dynamics between businesses and employees. Take “perks,” for example.

By now it’s well-known that tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google provide certain extraordinary benefits to their employees, like free meals and unlimited vacation days. But when these employee perks first hit mainstream media, people were shocked. Free snacks? Yoga classes? Months of paid paternity and maternity leave? It seemed ludicrous, wasteful or even a ploy to get employees to stay in the office for longer hours. Regardless, the bar had been set.

Very quickly, these perks, along with the prestige of working in Silicon Valley steadily attracted top candidates. But home-grown versions of these “Google perks” also began popping up in businesses across the country. To compete, organizations without the resources to create an employee Wonka Land had to find other ways to attract talent and increase employee loyalty. From this need, an entire industry and HR movement was built around the employee experience. And as is the pattern of the expectation economy market, innovative businesses like Blueboard, an experience based employee rewards system, sprung up to help businesses meet these new expectations.

In theory, expectation transfer seems to be a boon for both businesses and consumers. The more we consumers ask for better experiences, the better it will be for everyone. As businesses passionately try to meet our needs, more innovative products are brought into the world. A rising tide lifts all boats, and all that. Eventually, we’ll all live in an economy of perfection with every need and person is satisfied.

If only that were true.

Even as businesses meet consumer needs with increasing ease, paradoxically, consumers have become increasingly impatient and demanding. The time between a consumer’s journey from “marvelous” to “mundane” is shrinking. At some point, it might be impossible to meet their gargantuan expectations.

The best isn’t always better for everyone

Which leads us to the dark side of high expectations. For every magically perfect interaction via an app or real life service, a huge amount of effort must be exerted to pull it off.

If you get frustrated when a web page takes a few extra seconds to load, how do you feel about a package taking five days to arrive? To close the gap between the online and IRL experiences, we now see businesses investing in speedy experiences like same-day delivery—Amazon Same-Day and Walmart To-Go. But how much faster are we going to ask the world to run?

The strain of on-demand excellence is a burden to those who work behind the scenes. At Uber and Lyft, for example, drivers are considered contractors instead of full-time employees. This designation helps speed up hiring times and cuts down on overhead costs such as full-time employee benefits. But, it leaves these workers without health insurance and more. Just to get us an instant ride. Now some of these contractors along with other app-enabled workers from companies like Handy, an on-demand handyman service, and CrowdFlower, a crowdsourced data collection service, are filing lawsuits for better treatment.

Not only does the constant demand for perfection weigh heavy on employees, it hurts some businesses as well. Low unemployment rates and lots of job opportunities makes for a fierce talent hunt. When mom and pop businesses can’t meet the expectations transferred from Silicon Valley organizations, they lose out on great candidates. I mean, it’s hard to compete with 401 k matches when you can’t even provide free coffee. That might be why 64 percent of small businesses believe they can’t attract top talent. But,

Not only does the constant demand for perfection weigh heavy on employees, it hurts some businesses as well.

Plus, expecting everything to be perfect all the time is a fast way to be disappointed. As sophisticated as our lives are, there is still room for error. Having a healthy perspective that mistakes happen can keep us from the brink of becoming an unsympathetic society of consumer robots ala the people in Wall-E.

Until then, though, we can expect to see more innovative solutions to everyday problems. And a rise in thoughtful higher-quality customer experiences. Which, I suppose is something we should be grateful for in the present moment. My mom, for one, is thrilled that being “the best” is finally the norm.

Chelsea Larsson is one of the forces behind brand content on Zendesk and Relate. A communicator in both words and pictures, Chelsea enjoys writing features that encourage new conversations about old ideas, and drawing colorful narratives that make readers smile. Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.