Keep Your Promise. Keep Your Customer.

The pursuit of excellent customer service has been a debate point for decades, with many business professionals trying to figure out exactly what it looks like. Some would argue that it is the WOW factor – or the over-delivery of promised services. This is often interpreted as going ‘above and beyond’ ordinary customer expectations.

However, an alternative solution suggests that it may be as simple as consistently doing what we say we are going to do. Research has supported (Bitner, 1995) this premise time and again, showing that customers prefer businesses that are easy to work with; this means professionals that deliver on their promises. Can it really be that simple?
It can, in many regards. In others, it just isn’t. When you equate the company’s promise to its mission, it usually seems easy to identify and keep their promise.

Consider Nike, whose brand promise is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” When you initially read this, it is tempting to think that it would be a hard thing to measure, especially because their brand promise is so much larger than simply providing athletic gear. But it is not hard to find evidence of how Nike is doing this successfully. The most recent example is by hiring Colin Kaepernick as a brand spokesperson. While this move was considered controversial, its success cannot be denied. The company’s stock hit record highs in the immediate aftermath. Their decision to support a movement that embraces equality has truly been inspirational to people around the world, not just athletes.

In this example, it is easy to see what the promise to customers is because the phrase states it explicitly. But there are other examples of promises that companies make which are left unspoken. These are known as implicit promises. One great example of an unspoken, or implicit, promise is the expectation that most customers have when they encounter a problem with a product or service. Even if the company doesn’t directly state that they promise to provide superior customer service in the event that a mistake is made, most customers expect it anyway. This is simply a standard expectation, which makes it an implied promise.

Many times, though, when customers try to address an issue with an organisation, they are disappointed. When reaching out to a call center, as an easy example, they can suffer long wait times, and/or be transferred multiple times. This process is incredibly frustrating and represents a clear violation of the implicit (or unspoken) promise.

Customers have a wide range of expectations (or implicit promises) for different companies that can range from trusting that a product is safe to feeling comfortable when out shopping. This means it is an important and ultimately very productive exercise for organisations to clearly identify what implicit promises they are making their customers — and what their customers expect.

In addition to understanding the difference between explicit and implicit promises, its useful to look at the role of branding, because branding usually adds another layer of promises that companies must keep. It is less straight-forward though, usually because it is rooted in feelings or emotion. This is seen when Subaru states: “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru” or when Honda describes itself as “the power of dreams.” These are not concrete promises that can be kept, they appeal to our feelings.

Alternatively, look at Toyota’s tagline of “quality, safety, and innovation” or AirNZ’s promise of “liberating travelers from the ordinary.” These are concrete promises that can be verified by researching the performance of Toyota’s vehicles or flying on AirNZ. You can’t research whether or not love actually transforms your Subaru or whether your Honda powers dreams.

This doesn’t mean that AirNZ and Toyota aren’t targeting emotion in their brand-building efforts; they are simply appealing to different emotions. But this tactic does make it easier for them to live up to the explicit, or stated, promises they are making to their customers. Once that brand promise is determined it is easier to develop a plan to convey the promise to customers through marketing and advertising efforts.

Once a company understands the differences between their stated and unstated promises, they are in a much better position to identify what those promises are, which then, makes it possible for its staff to consistently deliver on these promises, or do what they say they are going to do.

In the rush to deliver ‘exceptional customer service’ the critical role of promises made to customers is often overlooked, at the company’s peril. Thoroughly understanding what you promise your customer, along with what they actually expect, leads to delivering genuine value consistently. It should be central to everyday functions on a broad scale.

As Shep Hyken states, “Customer service is the experience we deliver to the customer. It’s the promise we keep to the customer. It’s how we follow through for the customer. It’s how we make them feel when they do business with us.” When you keep your promises, you keep your customers.


Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business development strategist, social strategist and author. 

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