Thursday, August 30, 2007

How far would you go to prevent disappointment?

I've been thinking about the concepts of "expectations" and "disappointment" after reading a recent article over at Flooring the Consumer, a retail experience-oriented blog. The author explains her disappointment after planning and taking a trip to a local IKEA for an afternoon of lunch and shopping. Apparently, due to a county-wide problem with the water supply the IKEA's heavily-used cafeteria was out of commission for the afternoon, leaving the author and her young daughter out of luck (well, for the lunch part anyway. They managed to get some shopping in). Her take on the situation: IKEA could have done a lot more to avoid disappointing its customers, many of whom expect the cafeteria to be operational, and factor it in as part of their decision to shop at IKEA in the first place. She goes on to offer some possible solutions and workarounds that the store could have taken, including:

Given IKEA's commitment to serving family meals, why couldn't the store come up with a temporary, but fun food solution? Offer complimentary cookies? What about water, soda, milk? As we checked out, I noticed that ice cream was available at a cash/wrap snack bar. Why not upstairs in the cafeteria? Why did I have to check out to realize that another food [OK, snack food] option was available? This didn't make sense.

What about selling sandwiches? Or offering Lunchables? I understand water and sanitation issues, but why should that completely shut down this cafeteria? During the busiest shopping day of the week? When the store heavily advertises the service that had been shut down? What a missed opportunity.

Needless to say, I was disappointed with the response to the water emergency. These things happen, and what a lost opportunity to draw in consumers and Wow! them with a delightful and unexpected solution to a crisis. Especially the coveted woman and mom demographic!
Normally, I find the author's (C.B. Whittemore) estimates and advice to be dead-on. Practical and typically insightful, she's a demanding customer who has an eye for turning good retail experiences into great ones. And in fact, I think her suggestions for handling the closed cafeteria problem are mostly workable as well (I don't know about bringing in outside food sources -- I think that kind of thing could be laced with legal and logistical problems that would only be worsened by a lack of potable running water). Overall, though, I think that her high expectations led to a more severe disappointment than she might have felt if she wasn't so enamored with this particular retailer in the first place.

Therein lies a problem, specifically a Catch-22: retailers constantly work to improve their customers' experiences, and hence raise their customers' expectations. Consequently, when any kind of problem arises, it gets magnified, appears much more severe -- and is more disappointing -- than if the retailer had only a mediocre reputation that invoked moderate expectations to begin with. Thus in some ways being a top-notch retailer can get you into trouble, since with the higher highs come the lower lows, and measures to thwart and circumvent day-to-day glitches in the operation have to get continually more elaborate.

The situation reminds me a bit of the JetBlue fiasco that happened when an ice storm this winter shut down traffic to the airline's major New York hub. Traffic to a number of airlines was affected, but JetBlue got the lion's share of negative PR. Sure, a greater percentage of their flights were affected (due to both their reliance on the JFK hub and a bunch of admittedly terrible decisions by management), but by that point the airline had such a tremendously positive reputation that a glitch that would have merely upset another airline's customer base got JetBlue's passengers really, really angry. In short, JetBlue's customers -- just like IKEA's -- felt a more severe disappointment because their expectations were so high to begin with.

What's the solution to this problem? I certainly don't want to have my retailers and service providers suddenly stop trying just so I'll be less disappointed that they suck. That's not in anyone's best interest. But at the same time, I recognize that at some point it gets really hard to keep getting better. The only good news for retailers that continue to try harder is that for the really good, perhaps remarkable ones there seems to be a halo effect that dampens bad memories faster than for less remarkable ones. Thus, all of the goodwill that JetBlue accumulated over its years of being better than everyone else meant that shortly after the negative PR blitz they were able to win back customers with relatively little effort, and once again everyone agrees that if you have to fly, JetBlue isn't a bad way to go.

Likewise, I expect that even despite her lunch-less afternoon, C.B. Whittemore will find her way back into an IKEA sooner rather than later :)

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C. B. Whittemore said...

Bill, thank you for further amplifying this conversation with such interesting points. High consumer expectations are indeed problematic. However, they are what separate great from mediocre retailers.

The biggest disappointment about the IKEA reaction to this water problem was the inhuman/detached quality of the response. In hindsight, I didn't make that point strongly enough. The cafeteria is a HUGE deal at IKEAs. Many shoppers travel significant distances/time to get there [I'm lucky; my trip was only 30 minutes - still a good distance]. The cafeteria is promoted heavily to encourage visitors to make the trek. A human explanation, combined with a smile and perhaps an offer to go to the snackbar downstairs for ice cream [on the house would have been smart] would have been such a brilliant approach to the problem. It would have matched and/or increased those expectations.

Yes, I expect to return to IKEA - but much of the magic is gone.

BTW, the reason for wanting consumers to have high expectations about your retail experience is so they come back, more frequently, willingly, excitedly and constantly tell others about the Wow! they experienced. Low or mediocre expectations just don't cut it. Being a top notch retailer does NOT get you in trouble. Quite the opposite. But, as with everything else that is worth having, you have to work for it and earn customers' loyalty.

Bill Gerba said...

Hi C.B.,

Thanks for setting the record straight. I agree with you, and I definitely simplified the issue (and played devil's advocate a bit) to highlight the law of diminishing returns that retailers have to face when trying to figure out what their time/money/effort will translate into, not only in terms of hard numbers (e.g. short-term sales), but also softer benefits like customer loyalty and word-of-mouth advertising (a HUGE but very difficult-to-measure soft benefit).

I certainly don't want to see retailers slack off because it's cheap or easy, and I personally can think of numerous times when a retailer has gone the extra mile (for me, or just in general), and I've tried to reward them for it, so I do hope to see more of them pushing the limit in terms of positive customer experiences (if there is a limit on such a thing).

As for IKEA, were you take a walk around our offices, you'd think I would have known about the importance of the cafeteria for that particular shopping experience. Sadly, though, we had to order online and have them deliver, so while we have plenty of Swedish furniture, we didn't get to sample the meatballs :)

Anonymous said...

I read C.B.'s post and I had trouble with the title "Shattering Expectations". I don't see how a water problem and the inability to serve meals was "shattering". It seemed to me she blew the whole thing out of proportion.

I'm sure if they had brought in food from somewhere else the customers would have still been upset. We retailers try very hard to not disappoint customers, but to be honest we're going to from time to time. A retailer focused on the experience will do their best not to do so, but it happens. But personally my stores will focus more on people who aren't "shattered" about lunch.

C. B. Whittemore said...

Bill, you make an excellent devil's advocate!

I will, though, have to think more on this conversation, especially given Anonymous' comment.

Adam said...

I don't think c.b. overstated this at all.

The anticipation of an event takes place, neurologically speaking, at a deeper level that the joy of the event itself. It is one of the most central emotions we experience, and is apparently hot-wired directly into the pleasure-centre of the brain itself (along with just three others - rage, terror and the prey pursuit instinct).

(More detail here:

When this anticipation is not satisfied, we are disappointing an urge which lies at the deepest possible level of our psyche.