A few weeks ago I had lunch with the owner of a creative agency. We talked about the difficulties of work related to managing customer expectations. He shared the story of a customer who came to him wanting a complete re-brand for a community district. The project required designing unique street signs, facilities signs, park benches, trash cans, etc. All to create a distinct atmosphere for the district.
This was a huge opportunity for his company; the district received a ton of foot traffic and the community recognition alone would have been sure to bring new business to the firm. There was only one catch, the customer wanted the plan complete and ready for implementation in just two weeks.
I love this story because I think it represents a dilemma that business owners face more often than they admit — the question of "Should I, or shouldn’t I?" Often times the knee-jerk reaction is to accept the opportunity and then struggle to meet the customer’s expectations. This is haphazard. There is a better process that incorporates strategy when deciding to work for customers and their expectations. That process involves three questions.
Question 1: Do we have the resources to execute?
This question is the logical starting point. It requires that you clarify the constraints that are rooted in the customer’s expectations. Resource constraints come in many forms. Time, personnel, materials, cash, and technology are the minimum constraints that should be considered before you decide whether or not you can serve the customer. Ask clarifying questions like:
Do we have the personnel to deliver/perform our product/service?
Will we have to hire to get the job done?
Can we deliver on time?
Will we have to move current deadlines to make the customer happy?
Do we have the materials, inventory, or technology required to deliver?
Depending on your answer, it may be wise to consider declining the work. Even if the new agreement will provide all the cash you need to go out and buy resources you should consider that you are reacting to the situation, and that the firm that will be delivering the finished product is not the firm you have now. Being able to become the firm that can deliver is not the same as being the firm that can deliver. Which leads to our next question.
Question 2: Are we changing who we are to serve this customer?
Deciding if you can satisfy a customer depends on more than the availability of resources. This is because a company’s identity is not simply its products and services, but also why and how it delivers those products and services. Said another way, a company’s identity is in the values and culture that shape every interaction within the organization. The last thing you want to do to meet a customer’s expectation is undermine the current culture.
This is why making the decision based upon the availability of resources alone, although prudent, is incomplete. For example, say you’re short the personnel capacity to do the work, but the customer provides and advance that pays for workers. How quickly are you going to be able to recruit and hire? Do you plan on retaining them? If you don’t plan to retain them, how likely is it that they will adopt your culture and values?
Cutting corners to satisfy a customer’s expectations could harm current customer relationships, establish new, undesirable norms, and worse, erode your company’s culture and identity. Depending on your answer to this question, it may be wise to consider referring the customer elsewhere. But if you are still thinking about saying yes there's one more question.
Question 3: Do we really want to do the work?
This question is probably the toughest, because it requires that you temper your own expectations. It requires honest reflection on your own motivation. Yes, you have the resources and you are staying true to your values, but is this job likely to get you out of bed? Are you doing it for the next dollar? There are plenty of other ways to make money. Is the association with this customer one you will be proud of? Do they stand for the things you stand for? Is this work, all things considered, that we are going to stand behind and be proud of? Only after this last question are you ready to make the call. But rest assured you’ve carefully considered whether or not the next steps are worth taking and you are managing customer expectations strategically.
So, what did the business owner I had lunch with do? He gracefully declined. He explained it wasn’t a lack of resources, or that it was contrary to the DNA of his company. It was that he couldn’t answer the last question with a confident, yes. His desire was to lead the project, but the expectation from the customer was too idealistic. He knew that he couldn’t stand proudly behind his work under a demand that it had to be done in two-weeks. So he said "no" without any regrets.