Great Expectations: How to Say What You'll Do - and Do What You Say

By Colleen Francis

It's not the size of the ring that counts. It's the consistency of the cash flow.

Meeting - or exceeding - customer expectations is at the heart of true, lasting success in sales. When we fail to meet those expectations, however, there can be a high price to pay, regardless of how strong the relationship is between you and your client.

When expectations aren't met, trust is broken, opportunities are missed and sales can be lost, all despite the countless hours of hard work that were put in to almost making something happen. That's why it is imperative to complete a full analysis of the customer's situation during the sales process, in order to understand fully what he or she wants - and to be absolutely upfront about your ability to deliver it.

If a customer's expectations are unreasonable or impossible, you owe it to yourself, your company and the customer to say so. While this may initially rock the boat, customers who are serious about doing business with you - and who want to build a long-term, profitable relationship - will sincerely appreciate your honesty, and will likely be even more willing to work with you to establish more reasonable expectations.

Be clear, thorough - and honest
Shared expectations produce greater harmony and more sales - period. When establishing expectations at the onset of a project, be as thorough as possible, and be prepared to adjust as needed.

For example, if you find the customer asking for something you simply can't deliver, try some of the following to set the right expectations, right from the start:

  • "I'm not sure we can provide the product you are looking for at that price. If we can't, does that mean it's over between us?"
  • "That colour has been out of stock for weeks and I know that I can't get it for you on this order. Does that mean we can't go ahead?"
  • "I don't think we can meet your delivery schedule. Knowing that, does it make sense for us to move forward?"

In addition, be clear about what your customer can expect from you, as well as what they can't. Tell them what you can deliver instead of what they are asking for. Tell them that if ever you are unable to fulfill a request, you will always let them know either upfront, or the minute you realize it yourself.

Set the bar for consistent performance
Remember the old adage, "under-promise and over-deliver?" In sales, this isn't just a falsehood. It also sets an expectation that you might not be able to keep up with in the future.

When you under-promise and over-deliver, you set the bar for what the customer expects you to deliver at a whole new level. What you "over-delivered" becomes the new baseline, and when you aren't able to meet this new standard consistently, your customer will end up feeling confused, disappointed - or betrayed.

For instance, say you get a customer to place an order by promising them a large price discount if they buy before the end of the month. You've made a sale, but what happens next quarter or next month when they need to reorder? They'll expect that same discount again, and if you can't give it to them, they'll simply wait until the end of the month, when you'll be feeling the pressure to sell and will be more likely to cave on the price.

To build a consistently profitable relationship, there's no point in delivering better, faster or cheaper than your original promise if you know that you can't do it that way again the next time. It's better to simply say what you are going to do, and then do it exactly as and when you said you would.

Saying "No" and keeping the relationship alive
Setting the right expectations sometimes means having to say no. Most sales people are afraid to say "no" to their prospects and customers. Why? Out of the mistaken fear that they will lose a sale if they don't always say "yes."

In fact, no fear could be more unfounded. In sales, saying "no" doesn't have to be a relationship-ender. Instead, you just need to find a way to say "no" so that your customer realizes how he or she will benefit from your truthful answers.

Try some of the following techniques for saying "no" effectively, while still keeping the sale alive:

  • "I would like to say yes to your desired start date. I'm afraid that if I do, I won't be able to deliver this on time."
  • "I am not able to make it Tuesday at 2:00PM…are you able to meet at 10:00AM instead?"
  • "I would love to say that I can get you the proposal by Friday. I am concerned that if I promise you that, I won't be able to receive the proper input from our product specialists as you requested."
  • I would love to tell you that the product will be delivered by Friday. There is a good chance that it won't. Could we agree on a Tuesday deadline?

These statements do not guarantee that the customer will be happy. Nothing does. But they do offer benefits to the customer as well as to you. Plus, they are far better than the alternative: failing to deliver what you promised, falling short of your customer's expectations, or submitting shoddy work on time.

Remember: anything other than the truth erodes trust, and makes your word seem worthless.

Come clean about the past
Finally, if you've had a track record of not keeping your promises with a customer, it's time to come clean.

Admit to the customer that you haven't always kept your promises. Yes, really. If your customers have been on the receiving end of your unfinished, late or incomplete work in the past, your candor in admitting the problem will be the first (and best) step toward rebuilding a long-term relationship with them.

The bottom line is, you can't have a trusting relationship with a customer who doesn't have confidence in you. Trust is built through consistent behavior over time. So after you have come clean about not keeping your promises, you must commit to keeping your word in the future, every time.

If for some reason you are unable to keep a promise, let your customer know as soon as you do. Only in this way will they come to believe what you say, and be prepared to accept your word at face value.

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Nonstop Sales Boom by Colleen Francis Make sure you check out Colleen's latest book, Nonstop Sales Boom for powerful strategies to drive consistent sales growth quarter after quarter, year after year.

Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions ( Armed with skills developed from years of experience, Colleen helps clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line.

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