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The Fine Art of Managing Expectations — Third in a Series of Customer Service

Originally published May/June

Here’s a pop quiz:

  1. You’re in a midrange restaurant during your lunch break from work. You sit down and look over the menu. How long would you wait for a server to take your order, before you get impatient: five minutes? Ten?
  2. You’re sitting in your doctor’s office waiting for your appointment which was scheduled for 2 pm. on a weekday. How long do you wait before you become impatient: ten minutes? 20? More?

Few of us would wait much longer than ten minutes in a restaurant without looking around and trying to catch a server’s eye. And most people wouldn’t be fidgety or impatient waiting 15—20 minutes for a doctor; indeed, for many of us that’s a short wait.

Why the difference — 15 minutes is 15 minutes, right? In both hypothetical instances it’s a work day and you can’t afford to spend many hours away from your job. But many people are willing to sit for 30 minutes or longer without complaining in a medical office waiting room.

The main reason for our different reactions to the same wait time has to do with expectations. Most restaurant managers are focused on serving their customers, they know that customers have many choices for places to eat, and if they don’t please us, we’ll go elsewhere. Many medical practices, alas, seem to focus on the physician as the “customer.” We, the patients, have become conditioned to waiting. I’ve gotten to the point that I feel like thanking my doctor if he walks in “only” 15 minutes after the appointment time. So our expectations are radically different, depending on the context.

Smart managers understand the power of expectations, and they take steps to manage customers’ expectations. Here are some examples:

  • In a well run city, the public works department posts signs as you enter a road construction area. The signs vary from “temporary inconvenience, permanent solution,” to my favorite: “Aggravation ahead!” (a little humor goes a long way to reduce road rage).
  • A nurse who’s about to draw blood from a child will usually say something like, “this is going to sting for a moment,” to help the child get ready.
  • In a restaurant that posts its daily specials on a board, the manager removes a special item if they’ve run out of it; otherwise, the customer gets his heart set on it, requests it, and then is doubly disappointed to learn it’s not available. It’s always smarter to prevent the customer from asking for what he or she cannot have, in the first place.


If Academy Awards were offered to organizations that do an exceptional job of managing expectations, my nominee would be Walt Disney Company. If you’ve visited one of the Disney theme parks, you know what I mean. Consider: when there is a fairly long wait at an attraction, there is a sign showing the estimated wait time. But the actual wait is never as long as the time posted. If the sign says 15 minutes, the wait is ten minutes, max. And when you start moving after “only” ten minutes, you’re pleasantly surprised: “Gee, that wasn’t so long, was it?”

Not only that; Disney has learned how to use our wait to our advantage, so that it doesn’t even feel as long as it is. Sometimes it creates a moving line; you’re continually walking during the wait. For some reason, ten minutes doesn’t feel like ten minutes when we’re moving, and Disney’s figured that out. And sometimes the line stops in a certain area where we watch a short video giving us an idea of what we’ll experience at the attraction we’re about to enter. It’s very clever, it works for the customer, and thus it works for Disney.


Many government agencies face an almost impossible dilemma: a rising workload, a stable or declining resource level, and rising customer expectations. Since the 9/11 attacks, Americans have become more aware of the myriad ways in which government (at all levels) has to protect them. When we learn of security lapses, we expect our officials to act, quickly. And our rising expectations affect other government functions, in part because of technology, in part because of private sector improvements. When I can buy something online from, pay with my credit card, and have it in my house in three days (and not talk with a soul during the entire transaction), I expect the same from my local government. And when I call my local government (which does most things very well), and ask why I can’t pay taxes electronically or with my credit card (which I did a few years ago), I’m not pleased to hear that they aren’t set up to take payments that way. A payment is a payment, private or public, and we expect similar levels of service on such fungible activities.

So, we want more from government today, we aren’t too eager to pay more to get it, and we assume that the public servants will just have to figure this all out. Sometimes they do. But sometimes they can’t meet our expectations. And in such cases, their best strategy is to manage our expectations. Government managers need to help their customers know what’s reasonable to expect, so that those customers aren’t frequently disappointed. When this doesn’t happen, the citizens complain to their elected officials, who start micro managing the civil servants, who then have even less time and discretion for meeting customer expectations, and it becomes a vicious cycle.


Fortunately, we don’t have to figure this out entirely on our own. Some government agencies do a good job of managing customers’ expectations. The US Postal Service, for instance, works very hard each December to let us know the importance of mailing our holiday gifts and cards early, and tells us the date by which we need to mail our items for them to arrive before Christmas. That’s managing expectations.

We can learn from our private sector colleagues as well. When Disney posts the wait time at an attraction, it is using one of the oldest forms of expectation management: “under promise, over deliver.” And many elected officials are actually very good role models for managing expectations. They’re in one of the most customer driven jobs of all; if their customers (i.e., the voters) aren’t pleased at election time, there’s a steep price to pay. So the good politicians try to manage their constituents’ expectations. They’ll remind us that a given problem wasn’t born overnight, and it won’t go away that fast either. Some will tell us that a problem (say, the increasing number of illegal aliens entering the country) is very complex, and has no easy answers. And sometimes, our elected officials remind us that we need to be part of the solution. That’s one of the best ways to manage expectations; to be honest about the fact that government can’t solve every problem by itself.

There are many ways to manage customer expectations; you probably already do it in some ways (even if you didn’t think of it in these terms). Here are three approaches to this important art:

  1. Remember that the best time to manage expectations is up front. When a work place team is formed and is given team training, the facilitator usually helps the members spell out some simple ground rules for how they’ll work together. That’s managing expectations, at the right time. When you arrive at Monticello at 9:00 a.m. and learn that your tour of the house takes place at 10:30 (and that there will be no waiting then; you’ll walk right in), it might be disappointing but it’s an effective way of managing expectations, up front. You can use that 90 minutes to tour the gardens, visit the gift shop, start reading a book on Thomas Jefferson. In the old system, you had to wait in line for the 90 minutes. Now you’re freed up to do something else with your time. Which brings us to&ellip;
  2. When some wait time is inevitable, allow the customer to use that time creatively. Many post offices now have TV monitors tuned to an all news station. Watching CNN while waiting in line takes my mind off the wait, it allows me to gain some information, and I’m less likely to arrive at the counter in an ornery mood (unless the news is truly awful, of course). We’re in a multitasking world, people are used to doing more than one thing at a time, and it’s smart to offer customers useful activities when they have to wait for your service. Finally,
  3. Invite the customer to become a partner in producing the service or product. When I call an airline to book a flight and have to wait, the recording usually reminds me that I can also book tickets online, and sometimes save money in doing so. That’s an invitation to become a partner in the service. When a parks and recreation department is short on funds, and creates an “adopt a park” program that allows residents to be responsible for some maintenance and upkeep of a city park or garden, it’s an invitation to become a partner in the service. When a police department creates a citizens’ police academy, teaching residents about the law enforcement world and showing them how they can be an extra pair of eyes and ears to help maintain public safety, it’s an invitation to become a partner in the service.

And when we become partners, something very interesting happens. We’re less likely to put all of the responsibility for problems on the organization. We have more of a stake in its operations. We share some of the responsibility with the organization, and we have a better understanding of how the operation actually works. And the result is that our expectations adjust accordingly.

Managing customer expectations is an important art. It’s not manipulation. It’s smart management, and good customer service.

Order a copy of Russ Linden’s Working Across Boundaries

Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.

He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .