Bridging the Expectation Gap

Want more referrals and repeat business? First you need to master the Expectation Gap. What it is and how can you leverage it? Let me tell you a story…

Recently, on a speaking tour, I was picking up a rental car from the airport. When I arrived, I was informed that the car I reserved was not available. However, in an effort to make amends, the rental car rep. graciously said he would upgrade me to a larger vehicle if I could just wait five or ten minutes. A ten-minute wait for a free upgrade? I thought. No problem—I’ll take it.

Forty minutes later, I was still waiting.

In that moment, I dropped into what I call the expectation gap—the void between what we think is going to happen, and what actually does.

The Expectation Gap and Word of Mouth

We often toss terms like “referral” and “word of mouth” around as ideals for building a sustainable business. But while it’s true that positive and negative word of mouth can make or break a business, it’s important to realize that word of mouth doesn’t exist without the expectation gap.

If the expectation gap is positive—that is, we get more than we thought—then we spread the good word. If it’s negative, then we announce our disappointment.

No expectation gap means no word of mouth. Period. No tweets, no posts, no reviews. We don’t speak about products or services at all unless that gap exists.

Leveraging a Negative Gap

When we exceed expectations, positive word of mouth tends to follow. But does that mean that negative gaps are the kiss of death? Far from it. In fact, a disappointed customer is often a new fan waiting to happen. Consider this experience I had later that very same day. My family and I walked across the road from our hotel to The Keg for dinner. It was a Monday, and we didn’t think we’d need a reservation, but the place was jammed, and we were told there would be a 20-30 minute wait. We were hungry and a bit disappointed, but decided to stick it out—it’s my son’s favorite restaurant. Less than 10 minutes later, voila our table was ready! We were pleasantly surprised to say the least, and enjoyed a great meal.

At first blush, that seems like a simple enough scenario but here’s the important part: If not for our initial disappointment with getting a table at The Keg, I wouldn’t be writing this post talking about their great service. I’d simply have enjoyed a great meal and moved on in silence. That’s why negative gaps matter. A negative gap (a disappointment) can be transformed into an even more powerful positive experience. Compare these two experiences. Both began with unmet expectations—the disappointment of having to wait. But both were handled differently. Despite a free upgrade to a better car, Avis let me down. The Keg, however, exceeded my expectations after the first disappointment of having to wait, and here I am writing this blog with a newfound motivation to spread the word!

In this era, everyone has a platform. The internet has given each of us a soap box to shout out both our disappointments and our thrills. But as I learned recently, sometimes it takes the effort of turning a disappointment into a delight to get people to speak up.

Have you managed to turn a disappointed client into a fan? Share your story in the comments!