Half the promises people say were never kept, were never made.Edgar Watson Howe
That may sound like a cynical statement, but the truth is that expectation management plays a key role in creating successful business relationships – especially in a service-oriented business like insurance. Our task isn’t made easier by the fact that people are often under emotional or financial stress when they engage with insurance professionals, for example when they have a claim. That’s why establishing a consensus about what has and hasn’t been promised before a crisis is so essential. (It’s also why we need to be proactive about communicating with clients throughout the policy lifespan, but more about that later.)
Expectation management isn’t just for clients, though. It plays a key role in leading our sales and service teams as well. That said, let’s take a closer look at three golden opportunities to create this consensus and some proven techniques for doing it.
Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.Samuel Johnson
As this quote from 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson proves, puffery in advertising isn’t new. As a highly-regulated industry, insurance professionals face strict restrictions on what they can promise consumers. Most states prohibit the use of rebating and similar inducements to persuade customers, for example. Regulators also establish guidelines for advertising language, as in this recent bulletin from New Mexico.
It’s important to remember, however, that regulations are there to prevent the worst excesses of unethical behavior. Just because something isn’t prohibited under a state’s insurance code doesn’t make it a successful strategy. When marketing insurance products and your agency’s customer service to prospective clients, it’s important to accurately portray what you have to offer. A current trend in insurance advertising, especially for huge national carriers, features memorable — sometimes even comically extreme — scenarios. But trying to replicate this tone can create serious issues for agencies. Compliance experts and even legal counsel need to carefully vet the wording and images that appear in all advertisements. This goes for informal social media posts, too. You don’t want to create the expectation of an “insurance miracle” that you can’t deliver.
Creating realistic expectations through marketing helps set the stage for successful customer service interactions. Still, those efforts can be undermined if agents and CSRs don’t continue to manage expectations effectively. One of the things I love most about the people in our industry is their genuine desire to help people. Sometimes, though, this drive can lead team members to overpromise response times and outcomes. Dealing with an angry client can also tempt people to “say anything” to avoid an unpleasant situation.
If you make the customer a promise… make sure you deliver it.Merv Griffin
Keep in mind, though, that creating false expectations doesn’t help an angry or distraught client in the long term. At best, it delays the inevitable or passes the buck to an unfortunate colleague. Moreover, undermining the client’s trust makes it less likely that they will listen to and act on requests from your team. That can make it harder to achieve a favorable outcome. Better to be honest with people, even if it’s not what they hope to hear.
Employee Morale and Retention
As I said previously, expectation management isn’t just for clients. While younger generations may have a reputation for acting “entitled,” research shows that team members from every generation benefit from understanding what employers expect of them and what they can expect in return. Still, only about half of employees say they feel “very certain” regarding this area. The reasons for this vary, of course; but the results are fairly consistent.
People with unrealistic expectations for their work are less likely to be engaged with clients and co-workers. Productivity suffers, either because employees are unenthusiastic about fulfilling their responsibilities, or worse, waste time and energy mistakenly performing the wrong tasks. Conflicts between team members can also arise, especially if there is a perception that others are being treated more fairly or shown favoritism. Eventually, such tensions lead to turnover. Most agencies make a huge investment in training their sales and service teams. When that knowledge walks out the door, everyone loses.
Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible.Hannah Arendt
How to Manage Expectations
So, if creating a realistic, shared vision is so foundational to relationships with clients and colleagues, how can we manage expectations effectively? Fortunately, a few simple methods, used consistently, go a long way toward achieving the desired result.
- Be realistic. While we all hope for the best in every situation, chances are that sooner or later things won’t go our way. Don’t be so optimistic that you fail to prepare for such eventualities. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities. Train your team on how to respond effectively in difficult situations. Finally, study less-than-desirable outcomes to learn how to do better next time.
- Provide context. Once you’ve realistically defined the situation, share that information frankly. When all stakeholders are aware of the variables that can affect the outcome, they can participate fully in a shared, informed decision-making process.
- Be transparent when situations change. Often, our inability to fulfill our promises results from factors not fully within our control. When the context changes, share that information promptly. Just be sure your reasons aren’t excuses.
- Communicate consistently. Detecting a common theme yet? As in so many things in life, effective, consistent communication is the key to managing expectations. You want to give and get feedback as situations evolve. Don’t wait for the crisis moment to start the conversation. Additionally, while it’s important to communicate consistently over time, it’s also essential to have everyone on your team sharing the same message. This helps avoid another common pitfall in expectation management – people “shopping” for the answer they want.
Effective expectation management dovetails neatly with your business’ strategic planning, and there are many more situations — both professional and personal — where it promotes cooperation and reduces conflict. In short, it’s a skill well worth adding to your leadership toolkit!
For more tips on managing expectations, check out these articles:
- Expectation Management, by JD
- The Top Five Tips For Managing Client Expectations, by Annie Pace Scranton