Don't expect much from this article

About a week ago, I took a friend from Europe out to dinner. It was a wonderful night, but I was a little upset about one of the dishes that we ordered—a gourmet meatloaf that I had consumed and enjoyed many times before. It’s normally mind blowing. Juicy, delicious, full of flavor without being greasy or heavy.

That night, however, it was a little bland. I didn’t realize this until we were nearing the end of our meal, when she offered me a taste of her dish. Hm. It was definitely good, but not nearly as delectable as usual.

As we were discussing the food later on, she mentioned how the “starters were definitely the stars of the show”.

I felt a bit annoyed with the restaurant. It let me down.

Switch scene to today. My dad’s birthday is on Wednesday, and so my mom and I decided to take him out for an early brunch celebration here in San Francisco. I picked a place I had been to once one hazy morning a few years ago. I definitely remember it being good, and was expecting to have a nice experience. I, however, was wrong.

We didn’t have a good experience; we had a truly incredible experience.

The service was unreal. The food was spectacular. The ambiance was classy yet relaxed. It was perfect.

In the first situation I laid out above, I went in with high expectations, and had an experience that (while good) didn’t quite measure up. In the second situation, I went in with moderate expectations that were thoroughly exceeded.

Both of these anecdotes highlight how powerful our expectations are. They also hint to one approach to everlasting happiness: low expectations.

But in the rest of today’s newsletter, I want to talk a little bit about how expectations impact business strategy.

The Law of Expectation

In 1984, David Maister, formerly of Harvard Business School, compiled a list of “Laws of Service Businesses”.

They’re all great, but I particularly like his fifth law: Satisfaction = perception minus expectation.

It hints at a subtle dance that every business needs to do. They have to market themselves as amazing enough to motivate/inspire customer action, but they don’t want to make their product/service look so incredible that they set the customer up for disappointment.

According to this principle, you always want the image you paint of your product to be inferior to the real thing. I’m sure that the marketing team at McDonald’s would disagree (don’t Big Macs look AMAZING on TV!?), but this psychological principle, and basic life experience, would say otherwise.

A couple of interesting implications:

1. This means, to succeed, you have to create something truly remarkable. Since the expectation you create has to be worse than the experience itself, the product/service you deliver needs to be amply amazing to allow you to *still* create an inspiring, motivating advertisement.

2. If you can’t create something truly remarkable, the only other approach available is to place your product on the path of least resistance. Since your product isn’t capable of produce an inspiring vision, you won’t be able to motivate people to go out of their way to check you out. Therefore, you have to meet them where they already are.

What do you think? 

Jason Hreha