Setting expectations was the most important skill I learned while working as a Mac Genius. Not troubleshooting Mac OS X, or installing a new logic board in a Power Mac G5. Giving customers and my coworkers an accurate estimate for when a job would be completed. Letting them know what they could expect during the process, and after the job was done. People like to know what to expect. No one wants bad surprises. It is a good idea to under promise and over deliver only when the outcome is unexpected, but it it a better idea to tell the truth. People like to know what is around the corner. They will trust you more if you tell the truth, even if what you have to say is bad news.
Poor expectations are why I am not a fan of Comcast. In my area they provide broadband Internet, with reliable uptime, and generous bandwidth. Even their customer service is decent. What I don’t like is how their prices continue to climb until I contact them and demand a lower rate. Because I never know what to expect from my bill, and because I know I can call and get a lower price, I am unhappy with their service. What I want is the expectation that I am paying a fair price. A consistent bill would at least give me the satisfaction that I was paying the same price as everyone else. But with Comcast even the call center representatives know the game they are playing on you. They offer you limited time bundles with services you don’t need, in an effort to distract you from the fact they can’t tell you what your bill will be six months from now.
Twitter and Facebook play the same kind of games. They change their developer APIs and privacy policies without notice, hoping their users won’t realize the differences. When the differences are discovered press statements are released describing the changes as beneficial for the “community”, or the “experience” with no mention of what the future will bring. Sure enough, after the heat dies down, the API and policies are changed further. Observant users start to notice the trends, but for most the cycle of surprise, anger, and acceptance repeats without ill affect. Sooner or later Twitter and Facebook reach their desired goals without losing too many users, but the ones who remember the changes carry a bad taste in their mouths.
Why can’t big companies just tell us the truth by setting expectations and not playing games? Psychology probably tells them that gradual change is easier to accept, and the past has shown them that they can get away with it. We as users need to stand up for our rights by insisting on clear communication. If Comcast can’t find a flat rate without raising prices behind our backs, we need to let them know by canceling our service. If Twitter is afraid to tell its users third-party clients are dead, and the future is ad driven, we need to join App.net. And if Facebook is unwilling to discuss the longterm privacy of our information we need to get out while we still can. Even Apple, a company that has a long history of consistent product releases is unsure about the future of the Macintosh. Why can’t they just come out and say “we don’t know?”
The most valuable part of setting expectations is telling the truth, even if the truth means you don’t know, but are willing to find out. I am much more likely to remain a customer of companies that treat me with respect by setting expectations, and sticking to their word.