Thirty years ago this week, my brother and I loaded up a 14-foot U-Haul truck with somebody else’s things and moved them 2,000 miles, from New York to New Mexico, in two days. We took turns driving and, in this way, were able to barrel through a full 24 hours on the road with only food and gas stops before finally checking into a cheap motel near Little Rock, Arkansas. We then both slept for 12 hours straight, took much-needed showers, grabbed breakfast at a Waffle House, and forged ahead.

Because of the timing, we crossed the border into New Mexico at night. Which was a bit of a letdown for me. Prior to this, I had never been further west than Chicago. Crossing the Texas panhandle on I-40 shortly before sunset had certainly given me a taste for what “big skies” looked like. But other than that, the landscape itself had proven rather flat and uninspired. As somebody born and bred in New Jersey, I was dying more than anything else to see mountains and mesas and tumbleweeds.

In short, I wanted the authentic “Southwest” experience. Yet part of me worried that it couldn’t possibly live up to my inflated expectations.

Expectations are tricky things. We all have them. Even when we try not to, and even when we’re told not to, in both personal and business relationships. When we read a book or watch a movie, we expect there to be a beginning, middle, and end. When we go to the library, we expect people to be quiet. When we drive, we expect people to stop at red lights.

When people or things confound our expectations, the results can range from surprising (a movie with a twist ending) to annoying (that loud chatterbox in the library) to downright disastrous (the menace who doesn’t stop at red lights).

Setting Expectations

As a professional who writes marketing copy and builds web messaging strategies, part of my job is to help clients establish and manage expectations for prospective customers. If you’re running a business, then before somebody can make a decision about whether to commit to your product or service, it helps for them to have a clear sense of who you are, what you do, and how you operate. And your marketing efforts, particularly your digital presence (website and social media), play a key role in this.

My inflated expectations of the Southwest had been formed mostly by the John Ford westerns I grew up watching. So as my brother and I navigated our way down the “Turquoise Trail” between Santa Fe and Albuquerque that night thirty years ago, vaguely aware of the dark and hulking shapes of the land around us, my head was filled with images from those movies. John Wayne skillfully riding a horse up the side of a canyon. Or a stagecoach throwing up plumes of dust as it speeds across the desert. Or a quintessential “Wild West” town with dirt streets and clapboard fronted buildings, ripe for an unfortunate, yet inevitable shootout.

Whether these images were accurate or not, they were real enough to me. They created a strong emotion within me. They made me feel connected to someplace I had never been before, and filled me with a longing to go there someday.

Is your website or digital presence doing that for you?

Is it painting a picture of a business that people want to start a relationship with?

Is it telling a story of a business that not only cares about what it does but how it does it, and, most importantly, about the customers it does it for?

Is it establishing a set of clear and consistent expectations about who you are and what you do–in other words, your “brand promise”–that will have prospective customers banging down the door to do business with you?

Meeting Expectations

Meanwhile, back in 1989, after navigating in the dark a series of hard-pan roads that felt like driving over a washboard, my brother and I arrived at our destination–a pueblo-style house on a wide plot of land–and parked the U-Haul. As exciting as the past 48 hours had been, they had also taken their toll, and it felt good to finally stop. And since the altitude where we were now was over 6,000 feet, it meant considerably less oxygen than we were used to. So I slept well that night, dreaming of exit signs and gas stations.

The next morning, as the sun pushed through my eyelids, waking me up, it took a few seconds to remember where I was. Once I did, I rushed to my feet and nearly ran out the door. And there it was. The payoff I’d been waiting for. Broad blue skies above, sagebrush on the ground as far as the eye could see, and the jagged peaks of what I would later come to know as the “Sangre de Cristo” mountain range off in the distance. I had arrived.

When reality matches our expectations, it creates a kind of closure that is emotionally satisfying. In my case, of course, it wasn’t a 100% match. John Wayne wasn’t there, and although I could see some horses off in the distance, there was nary a stagecoach to be found. But that was fine. It was the look and feel of the Southwest I’d been yearning for, and that pervaded me from the moment I first stepped out into the sun.

As important as it is to establish expectations of some kind, it’s equally important to ensure that those expectations are realistic, achievable, and consistent. The core of what your business says about itself and your brand on its website should match what you say on your Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn pages, and it should all match the actual experience your customers have when they do business with you. If it does, then they too will feel that sense of closure, of things clicking into place, that reassures them they’ve made the right decision.

Confounded Expectations

By contrast, when reality doesn’t match our expectations, we are left feeling a bit incomplete. Unfinished. Like meeting a celebrity for the first time and realizing they are just as normal and boring as you are. Or worse, a complete jerk.

The expectations you establish about your brand with your digital presence are a kind of promise you make to your clients and customers.

If you claim on your website to offer “unparalleled” customer service, yet when somebody calls with a problem, they reach your voicemail or an apathetic or unhelpful staff member, then you are failing as a business to live up to expectations.

If people fill out a form on your website to receive a free weekly newsletter from you, but then also get added to a list to receive a dozen unsolicited marketing blasts each week, then you are failing to live up to expectations.

If there’s a sign in your shop window offering a deep discount, and you find a loophole to get around delivering on that offer, putting revenue ahead of honoring your customers, then you are failing to live up to expectations.

Exceeding Expectations

Fortunately for me, New Mexico did not disappoint. After our arrival, I spent the next few days marveling at what seemed to me like the mostly barren surface of another planet, painted exclusively in shades of tan and brown and dark green. It was nothing at all like the parade of trees and cars and buildings I’d grown up in.

During the day, I wandered up and down a nearby arroyo (dried up riverbed), giddy at the sight of tumbleweeds actually tumbling in the wind. At night, I lay on the cold ground, staring up at more stars than I knew could even exist–a tapestry of them so dense that they gave the moon a run for its money. I even saw a few roadrunners. And coyotes. Although much to my chagrin, never both at the same time.

A few weeks after our arrival, New Mexico exceeded my expectations.

Because that was the night my brother woke me up out of a sound sleep to look at something in the sky in the direction of Albuquerque. Something bright red and shimmering, like a curtain of light swaying in a gentle breeze. Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights. In New Mexico of all places. And it was then, as my brother and I stood transfixed by the bizarre and terrific rarity of what we were witnessing, that I understood why they had nicknamed the state “The Land of Enchantment.”

Of all the things I had ever expected to see, that one would never have made the list. Yet more than anything else, it will remain the defining punctuation mark of that first Southwest experience for me until the day I die.

If your business and brand can not only live up to but exceed your customers’ expectations in this way, by offering them a greater experience than promised, then the sky’s the limit. This is how the best companies in the world, large or small, inspire loyalty and trust that lasts for years and even decades, creating unstoppable word of mouth along the way.

So as a business, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What are the expectations you’ve established with your digital presence?
  2. Are you consistently fulfilling the brand promise of those expectations … or falling short?
  3. What are you doing to exceed your customers’ expectations?

If you’re having trouble answering these questions, or aren’t quite sure how to communicate and integrate expectations about your business and your brand into your overall messaging strategy, then be sure to drop me a line here or connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s have conversation about it.