So many times, we are faced with a situation in which our customer or internal company relationships have changed, but we are not sure why. There can be a variety of reasons, but often it can be attributed to us having failed to manage their expectations and they have not told us.
Several years ago I was with Coca-Cola and was responsible for our business with McDonald’s. I had arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, the night before and had dinner with my account manager to discuss what he had planned for the next day of our visit.
Petr and I were going to see a number of McDonald’s restaurants in the morning followed by meetings with Pavel, the Marketing Manager and Tibor who was the MD. I always insisted on a market visit when in the country and it was now part of our team culture, especially before meeting anyone at McDonald’s.
The visits gave us a general feel as to what was happening on in the business by seeing what meals were being offered, the pricing, and beverage quality. It was considered a courtesy that before going to see your customer, you at least knew what was going on with their business and we were, therefore, able to discuss it with them.
It also provided the opportunity to get insights into how we could add value to what they were doing and increase our mutual profits.
We arrived at the McDonald’s office on time and he kept us waiting for a while, which was unusual. Petr led the conversation, but the reaction from Pavel was stilted and I sensed he was uncomfortable, not engaged. The body language was negative and he rarely looked us in the eyes.
We finished the meeting and it was shorter than anticipated, another sign that things weren’t what they should be. About 15 minutes before we were to meet with Tibor his assistant Karina came to me and asked if I would see him on my own.
Tibor welcomed me into his office as he always did, an elegant and a large man; he got up from behind his desk and gave me the usual bear hug and warm handshake. We had known each other since McDonald’s had opened their first restaurant in the Czech Republic, 5 or so years ago.
We talked about business in Czech and other markets, as we usually did and after about 30 minutes I sensed he wanted to broach a new subject but was uncomfortable about it. So I said “Tibor, what’s on your mind. Is something troubling you or something I can help you with?”
He then proceeded to tell me that Pavel was very unhappy with the attention he was getting (or not getting) from Coca-Cola. Responses to his e-mails had been slow and not always addressing what he wanted. Furthermore, we had missed some deadlines on joint promotions because Coke had not kept to agreed timelines. Clearly they were not happy with us.
The one maxim I always use in such situations is that perception is reality. It doesn’t matter whose right or wrong because clearly we haven’t matched our clients expectations. If the expectations are unrealistic, then we need to manage them better.
What I found out was that Petr and Pavel had a different understanding of what had been agreed about the promotion and the timing. Even worse, these differences had been communicated internally in both companies and so now numerous people at each company felt the others had underperformed.
This was a now a virus that was poisoning the relationship that had always been strong.
We resolved the differences and put together a plan that I forwarded to Tibor which was as objective as possible and we suggested a few steps be taken in the future to prevent such misunderstandings:
- After every meeting agree on who will publish notes of the meeting and what action is required.
- Both parties to agree the notes reflect the meeting discussion.
- If the customer misunderstands something, be prepared to discuss it with them, rather then hope it will go away – it won’t.
- With any intensive project make sure all parties involved meet regularly (physically or by audio/video conference).
- Have a timeline chart of key milestones agreed to, and if they change, update the chart and copy everyone.
Things moved a lot more smoothly as these small simple processes were put into place.
One of the things that I think is really important and is often forgotten is we should not assume everyone knows what is going to happen next.
Expectations are your customer’s vision of a future state or action and although usually unstated they are critical to your success!
Managing expectations is a key element of building relationships and we should not build expectations that are impossible to manage. It will only set us up for failure!
Peter M. Beaumont is a Management Consultant, Founder of ConnXN and is a Consultant for Pivotal Advisors. He is the author of The Relationship Roadmap and works with managers of B2B companies to increase profits quicker by managing Strategic Accounts differently. See more at www.ConnXN.net or http://www.pivotaladvisors.com