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Low expectations: have them and they'll come true

Monday, 29 March 2010

I complained yesterday. At least, that’s how what I did would tend to be referred to. I’d rather see it as pointing out an opportunity for improvement. There was an opportunity, it wasn’t being seen, and it was achievable. In this article, I want to focus on the very past of these points.

The situation was a very ordinary one. After a swim with my wife and baby, we pooped to the leisure centre café for a drink. I went to the counter and there, right behind the till, studiously avoiding eye contact, concentrating on saving rather than using words, and entirely focused on chewing a plastic lolly stick into submission, was the café’s newest member of staff.

Sloppy, poor service like this is, unfortunately, not particularly surprising, and nor is the fact that I seemed to be the only person who cared about it. As I left, I decided to have a word with the duty manager…


There is an awfully unhelpful set of low expectations that surround some people in some jobs. It would be, and was, incredibly easy to come up with a huge list of excuses for poor performance or behaviour. In a context like this, so of the justifications that could be given are:

In the complete opposite of a cruel way, I really don’t care about any of those things, and here is why.

Get what you expect to get

If our expectations are such that service like the sort I experienced yesterday becomes acceptable, that is the sort of service we will (and do) end up getting. If no-one says anything about it, it’s easy for things to go unnoticed for such a sustained period that they actually become the norm. We will always have people who fit into some (or all) of the categories above, and I don’t want to allow them to undermine the possibility of great customer service.

Expecting little is the unfair part

There can be a view that low expectations (although those holding this view are unlikely to refer to them as that) are the kind option. We ought to let people get away with bad service for reasons such as those listed above.

I profoundly disagree, to the extent that I think it is unfair to hold these low expectations about someone simply because some of these reasons apply. I have experienced exceptional customer service from teenagers, from people new in their role, from young people, from low-paid people, and so on. Giving those factors as an excuse for poor service undermines those who give great service, and labels all people who fall into a particular category as “the same”

There is a broader context

Someone on their first day needs training and coaching. Expectations need to be set, attitudes demonstrated, skills developed and knowledge given. The broader context here was that this training and development simply wasn’t happening. There were three more experienced members of staff behind the counter, only four customers (plus one baby) in the café, and yet no-one was taking responsibility for improving performance.

A complaint/piece of feedback to a manager in these circumstances is actually only partly about the individual concerned. It’s about the manager too, and everyone in between, because they have an enormous responsibility to set standards, lead by example, and train and develop others.


People are often afraid of complaining, even if it is really about giving non-confrontational feedback as a critical friend. However, the chances are that there is no hand-grenade under the counter, nothing awful will happen, and there is a possibility, a small chance, that the efforts you’ve made as a customer will improve the experiences of innumerable people. What a great thing it is that you chose to do that!

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