Surpassing Customer Expectations and A Happy, Fun Workplace?


In a Harvard Business Review article dated from July 2003 entitled “What Really Works” by Nohria, Joyce and Roberson, the authors reveal some interesting research that makes a couple of very different points.

The two points come from their observation that winning companies use a combination of management practices that can be thought of as 4 mandatory practices and 2 optional practices.

The mandatory practices are strategy, execution, culture and structure.

The 2 optional practices can be chosen from a menu of 4 practices. They are Talent, Leadership, Innovation and Mergers & Partnership.

Among the many items of interest are a couple of points.

The first is the following:

“Evergreen winners deliver offerings that consistently meet customer’s expectations, and they’re very clear about the standards they have to meet. But they don’t necessarily strive for perfection… In fact, fully one-third of winning companies offered only average product quality. Which goes to show that many customers don’t care about a level of quality that goes beyond their needs and desires; they won’t necessarily reward you for exceeding their expectations. They will, however, punish you severely if you don’t meet their expectations. You tumble quickly when you fail on execution.”

In a prior blog, I wrote about the fact that the ICC Cricket World Cup, with its emphasis on “World Class Standards,” has so far failed to create an experience that West Indian cricketing fans are interested in paying a premium for.

This research finding seems to back up that assertion by showing that expectations that customers don’t have might not be not worth meeting. (I prefer to think in terms of customer experiences, as that is much more precise than talking in terms of vague “expectations.”)

In other words, then, experiences that customers are not willing to have just might not be worth creating.

On the other hand, experiences that customers believe that they must have are absolutely necessary, and not in some theoretical way, but in a felt way – deep down inside the bones of the customer. Mangers need to be careful not to superimpose experiences on the customer they do not want.

For example, it may very well be that a customer of world class standard cricket wants to be able to watch the game without having someone next to them blowing a conch shell… or selling peanuts… or shouting loudly… or dancing at every minute, or offering them food to eat that their “Auntie” made just this morning including something from a goat.

However, for a Caribbean customer, these are required experiences that make Caribbean cricket what it is.

The second point was the following:

“Our study made it clear that building the right culture is imperative, but promoting a fun environment isn’t nearly as importing as promoting one that champions high-level performance and ethical behaviour.”

In effect, the authors’ research results disprove the myth that if the company creates a fun environment, then employees will be so happy and “all else will follow.”

The problem with trying to create an environment based on “fun” is that not only is the stated value wide open to interpretation, but it also leaves management chasing after every employee complaint that they are not having “fun.”

Improvement then becomes a matter of trying to plug all the leaks in the fun people expect to be having. Unfortunately, no company can be expected to be the grand provider of all things that are fun… in fact, to commit to this goal seems to me to violate the principle that each person is actually responsible for their own fun in the first place.

Fun, and happy employees, seem to me to be more of a fortunate by-product for those people who happen to enjoy cultures of high performance and ethical standards. For those employees that do not enjoy such cultures, then the workplace will always be a miserable place.

Companies that try to make their employees happy run a grave risk of putting the cart before the horse.