Why some Customers are unhappy… no matter what

As a General manager you should aim to have a happy customers.

There are times, though, when customers become unhappy, even though you believe they have no right to be. And remain less than happy, no matter what you do.

Today, I’d like to offer some advice, an explanation, and a general strategy.

The advice is- get used to it.

Happy and sad face.

While you can create a great environment for customers, you can’t make some unhappy customers happy. And even if you do try to make them happy you may not succeed.  If you are able to consistently deliver what you promise to customers this is enough… but here’s how to understand that maybe it won’t be enough for some and what you can start doing about it.

So now the explanation- why are some customers happy and others are unhappy in exactly the same situation?

Let me share a situation…

Travelling overseas I arrived early at my hotel. As I waited to check in the reception staff mentioned that they would be able to upgrade my room to a suite overlooking the beach.  The room was being cleaned and they would confirm in half an hour.

Wow I was ecstatic. Here I was being upgraded.

I waited expectant and delighted.  As I was asked to check in, I asked about the upgrade, and the reception staff said that it wouldn’t be possible now as they had found some defects in the room, and it wouldn’t be available.  I said I didn’t mind the minor defects, to get a suite and a view (for free). The reply was that they wished all their guests to have a perfect stay and they were not permitted to put people into potentially substandard rooms.

So now I’m unhappy.  I have got exactly what I purchased, but I’m still unhappy.


H = R – E

How can happiness be influenced by things we don’t have, never expected to have and wouldn’t have missed, if the thought hadn’t occurred to us? Economists Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells, in their book Engineering Happiness, have researched this phenomenon and created this simple equation: happiness equals reality minus expectations. The implication, in my case, is that if you raise my expectations beyond reality’s capacity to meet them, I become unhappy.

Some people have congenitally high expectations. They pay you a dollar and expect a hundred dollars worth of service. You try to bend the rules for others and they try to take more, they have expectations that they are special and you should do these things for them.

Interestingly, the reverse equation applies, too: you can make people happier, studies suggest, by delivering bad news, then withdrawing it. Hence the used car salesman’s trick: lure the customer with a deal; reveal it doesn’t apply to the car they are considering; then have a word with your manager, who (just this one time, even though its against policy) agrees to an exception. Relief triggers happiness, and a sale.

As your customer service performance increases expectations of that performance also increase. Your business is then forced into a never ending cycle of performance escalation.

Here’s an example; Changi Airport. Rated number one airport in the world, consistently. Sounds great. But lets dig a little deeper.  All visitors rate Changi around 7-8 out of 10 in most reviews  Here’s the latest Skytrax, top 20, Changi (and Incheon) are far ahead of the other top airports


Yet, Singaporeans, consistently view Changi as below average in performance. Again data from the latest Skytrax survey, and there’s Changi rated by Singaporean’s at 4.6… and no there aren’t two different Changi Airports.


Why this significant difference?  My hypothesis is that Singaporean’s are used to the absolutely fantastic service at Changi and their expectations of Changi are sky high, and so their happiness degrades when reality doesn’t meet these sky high expectations and they record their disappointment on the survey.

Here’s my own personal view- “At Changi Airport, I expect to get through an empty passport control immediately”, reality bites- “D**n, there a queue, I’m having to wait “.

So how can you use this in a business environment?

While keeping your service exceptionally good, ensure that you manage your customers expectations.  I will focus on strategies in the next post, but here’s a taster on how to implement this strategy. This is the typical under promise and over deliver. But don’t over do either.

Singapore Airlines manages your expectations well by stating that their departure time is 10 minutes later than they plan it to be and arrival time is half an hour later than they aim for (check Flightaware for the actual times).  SIA have a built-in expectation management into their timetable. Hence the normal comment from the SIA Pilot “Ladies and Gentlemen, you’ll be happy to know we’ll be taking off a little earlier than schedule, and we think we’ll be able to land 10 minutes earlier than scheduled”.  The result of this is you are delighted, Singapore Airlines has just given you back 10 minutes of your life.  And the Pilot again, an hour before landing at Changi; “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve been able to make up some time, we’ll be landing fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled”  You feel even better.

This management approach is echoed with the view from SIA ground staff.  If you ask for something out of the ordinary, their response is rarely, “Yes, we can do that“.  Their response is a more measured; “Normally, Sir, we wouldn’t be able to do that, but let me see what my supervisor says“. Your expectations have been brought back into line, so that when you get the green light that taking that extra bag on board is OK, you are made to feel delighted, expectations exceeded.

Next, we have five strategies for managing expectations.