In consulting, there is a constant push to “exceed customer expectations”. It makes sense in our business- since we are coming in as experts, we should have experiences and perspectives that allow us to see broader trends and opportunities than our clients, who are often buried in the details of running and growing a single business.
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But today, I want to challenge the idea that always exceeding customer expectations is a good measure of excellence. Exceeding expectations can happen when one of two things happens- either expectations were too low, or you behaved better than anyone expected.

Expectations being set too low could be a symptom of a lack of confidence, poor communication, or in some cases, just plain laziness. Exceeding these low expectations is certainly not a sign of excellence.

But, you may protest- what if the expectations are realistic and correctly set? Isn’t exceeding correct expectations a sign of excellence? To which we would answer- it depends.

At what cost were expectations exceeded? If manufacturing specs were exceeded without extra processing time or cost- EXCELLENT. But if exceeding the specs doubled the cost or time of manufacturing- not so great at all. If you successfully close a major project 2 weeks ahead of time with no unintended impacts- EXCELLENT. But if you beat the deadline by focusing more resources on that project, and thus missed the deadline for 4 other projects- that is poor program management, not excellence at all.

Certainly then, if the expectations are realistic and exceeding them produces no negative impact, an organization where expectations are always exceeded is an excellent one, right?

Far from being excellent,  an organization that always exceeds expectations is one headed for obsolescence. If targets are carefully set and always exceeded- then there is no stretch, no growth, no risks and no innovations.

In a healthy, thriving, growing business we would expect to see some goals met, some goals exceeded and some which fail.  The mark of an excellent organization is not how many goals they exceed, but in how they react to the successes and failures.