What Do Customers Expect? Not Good Service, Apparently.

New consumer research finds that while people might hope for the best customer experience, they anticipate the worst.


Extended call center waits, sparsely staffed stores, unintelligible billing statements, hidden service fees – these are just a few of the “indignities” to which businesses subject customers.  And, according to Watermark Consulting’s research, these customer experience disappointments have become so prevalent, consumers are hardly surprised by them.

Just consider how low the customer experience quality bar has been set, based on these eye-opening findings:


Basic customer expectations are not consistently being met.

  • Only 23% of consumers say that businesses consistently meet all of their expectations.
  • As a result, 48% report getting routinely frustrated when interacting with companies and their representatives.


Access to timely assistance is lacking.

  • A whopping 48% of consumers are not at all surprised when they have difficulty reaching a live person at a business to get assistance.
  • Half of those surveyed said they are not at all surprised by having to wait an extended time to get help.
  • It’s not just a telephone service issue – more than half (54%) of consumers are not even moderately surprised when they have trouble finding someone to help them in a retail store.


When assistance is ultimately offered, poor service is unsurprising.

  • More than half of consumers (55%) are not even moderately surprised when an employee fails to follow through on a commitment.
  • An astounding 41% of consumers say they are not surprised at all when a company employee fails to call them back as promised.


Customers’ low expectations apply to more than just live interactions.

  • Nearly half (48%) of consumers are not significantly surprised when they come across a business website that is difficult to navigate.
  • A similar proportion (49%) express little surprise at receiving correspondence from a business that’s difficult to understand.


All of these frustrations shape the consumer psyche in very negative ways.

  • When preparing to engage with a business, only 36% of consumers believe that it will be easy to work with the company.
  • Less than 1 in 5 consumers (19%) believe that businesses routinely act in their customer’s best interests.


This research reveals something quite astounding:  Experiential features which might logically be considered “table stakes” – e.g., accessible staff, prompt service, clear communications, honoring commitments – have actually become competitive differentiators, because so many businesses fail to consistently deliver on these fundamentals.

We as a society have become so accustomed to poor, unfulfilling customer experiences, that the absence of these experiential elements has become decidedly unsurprising.

Take, for example, the health insurance claims representative who doesn’t call us back as promised.  Or the house painter who doesn’t show up to a job on time.  Or the big box retailer where it’s impossible to find an employee to help with a purchase.  These are the types of customer experience scenarios that have, unfortunately, become all too common — and so they leave people unfazed.

However, while the absence of these experiential elements is not surprising to many people, their presence is.

Consider the retail store where a helpful employee always seems just a few steps away.  Or the home contractor who unfailingly returns calls within hours if not minutes.  Or the customer service representative who takes complete ownership for solving your problem, with no call transfers required.  These are examples of interactions that, simply by delivering on the most basic aspects of customer experience competency, leave quite a positive and memorable impression — because they involve business behaviors that consumers don’t routinely encounter.

Indeed, these days, if anything does surprise (and delight) consumers, it’s the rare business that is consistently effortless to work with — as evidenced by the overwhelming majority in the Watermark study (80%) who said they were delighted when a company made it easy to do business them.


The vast majority of consumers (80%) say they’re delighted when a company makes it easy to do business with them.


The calculus around what it takes to delight a customer has fundamentally changed.  People are pleasantly surprised – if not sort of shocked – when they pick up the phone, call a company, and a real person promptly answers.  They’re surprised when it’s easy to find a store associate to assist them.  They’re surprised when an employee takes clear, unequivocal ownership for solving their problem.

And, so, the lesson from this Watermark research is that businesses would be remiss if they didn’t attend to these simple but fundamental aspects of customer experience.  Because the irony is, based on what consumers have come to expect, when an organization delivers on those basics — that alone can set them apart from the competition, and turn their customers into loyal fans.

[Editor’s Note:  Watermark’s consumer expectation survey was conducted via an online survey in June 2021 (n=1,121, 95% confidence level, margin of error <= 3%)]


Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees, creating raving fans that drive business growth.  Author of “FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans,” Picoult is an acclaimed public speaker, as well as an advisor to some of world’s foremost brands.  Follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram, or subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.


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