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Customer Management Lesson from "How I Met Your Mother"

Brian Cantor

Maybe you gave your customer exactly what he wanted. Maybe you did everything the right way.

Maybe that is not enough to create customer satisfaction.

Reaction to Monday’s season finale of "How I Met Your Mother" underscores the extent to which the promises a brand makes and the expectations a brand sets can impact customer expectations.

The answer? A significant extent.

Even though the first season of "How I Met Your Mother" was built around the love story between central character Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) and Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), the "Zip, Zip, Zip" episode, in which Robin embarked on a "bro’s night out" with Ted’s friend Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) put forth the notion that the latter two were actually more compatible.

From that point forward, fans of the series—aware that the writers had definitively ruled Robin out as the titular "Mother" to Ted’s children—anticipated the eventual relationship between Barney and Robin. The quest towards that end goal became a central focus of the show, often overshadowing the romantic and professional escapades of lead character Ted.

The show finally gave viewers the long-awaited Robin-Barney hook-up in season three and even paired the two in a relationship at the start of season five. But in a storyline that was as metareferential as it was plot-driven, the two broke up out of frustration over what the relationship had done to their individual personas.

Still, the endgame of marriage between Robin and Barney never went away, with fans struggling to endorse intermediary boyfriends and girlfriends for the characters on grounds that none of the relationships could compare to that between the two key characters. No matter how close the characters got to storyline marriages with recurring characters, fans refused to give up on the prospect of Barney and Robin.

By all means, that is the relationship they wanted, and it is commonly-accepted within television circles that "How I Met" has done a better job of getting fans invested in the evolution of Barney and Robin than it has Ted’s search for "the Mother."

And so when the show, after seven seasons, flashed forward to Barney and Robin at their wedding, one would have anticipated glee from an audience that had spent more than half a decade hoping these characters would tie the knot.

Glee, indeed, emerged, but in many instances, it was trumped by a sense of disappointment. After all the hype for the big wedding reveal, we get the obvious marriage between Robin and Barney?

Certainly not afraid to string out its storylines, "How I Met Your Mother" first introduced this mystery wedding at the beginning of season six, confirming that Ted was the best man at an important wedding, one at which he finally met his would-be wife. In the season six finale, "Mother" revealed that Barney was the groom (and, as an aside, hinting that the "Mother" will be Barney’s not-yet-introduced half-sister Carly, who aligns with a number of the contextual clues for the character).

A year later, the show finally revealed that the bride at said wedding was Robin.

The problem with such a long build, especially one that was predicated on shock "reveals" rather than organic storytelling, is that it creates expectations for legitimate surprise. When embarking on slow camera movements and the "drumroll, please" mindset, shows are preparing viewers for a mysterious reveal. Think: the dramatic tension when "Lost" revealed who was in the coffin at the funeral home.

Viewers, therefore, were conditioned to expect some sort of twist in the reveal. And as Monday’s episode progressed, building to the announcement that Barney proposed to his current girlfriend Quinn, it was obvious that the final flash forward would reveal a different bride under the veil. The show, after all, would not have spent an entire episode progressing the Barney-Quinn episode to reveal, in a major "shock" moment at the end of the episode, that Barney married Quinn.

Given what we know about the characters, who else could that be but Robin Scherbatsky?

As a result, instead of coming across like a legitimate "happy ending," the bride reveal felt lazy and uncreative. The writers spent two years hyping this surprising wedding reveal, and they end up giving us the wedding anyone could have guessed from twenty miles away?

Suddenly, an episode that featured the emotional birth of Marshall and Lily’s first child and the realization of one of the show’s key love stories became the episode that disappointed viewers.

Even though the Barney-Robin wedding is what viewers truly wanted, the "promises" made by the brand created alternative expectations that changed viewer conception of their "want." So enthusiastic about the surprise reveal, these viewers likely convinced themselves that the ending they couldn’t guess would be better than the ending that made sense.

In customer management, we need to be mindful of this phenomenon. Though it might seem intuitive that delivering the best possible product—or even the best possible customer service—is the way to a customer’s heart, we cannot ignore the impact that expectations have on changing a customer’s perceptions.

Consider my experience at the local deli. Sick to death of my "usual" egg white, ham and feta sandwich, I recently made the call to start eating tuna melts for breakfast. The restaurant’s veteran grill cook had no problem making a lunch sandwich at breakfast time, noting, "I’ll make whatever you want." He would always smile, chat, make "guy" jokes about cute girls that walked into the deli and, quite simply, relate to me on a personal level. It was a great experience, and I looked forward to going there every day.

He recently, however, embarked on a hiatus from the gig, prompting a new grill cook to step up to the plate. His demeanor is the polar opposite. He is not friendly. He rarely smiles. He does not look like he enjoys his job, let alone the customers with whom he has to interact. And when I first asked him to make a tuna melt at 9:45AM, he looked like I asked him to kill his first born. I’ve tried a few more times, hoping that the initial bad experience was an anomaly. It was not.

Ultimately, he makes the sandwich, and it is bigger and tastier than any I ever received from my "preferred" chef. In theory, as a customer, I should be thrilled that I’m now getting a better breakfast with more "bang for the buck."

But thanks to expectations about the establishment, I am not. I have actually experimented with some other locations out of frustration with this cook’s failure to keep up the reputation for stellar customer service. Even though good food was the initial reason I chose this restaurant over neighboring ones, expectations led me to believe I was primarily going there for its customer-centricity, just as "How I Met Your Mother" fans believed they cared more about shock outcomes than desirable ones.

Compounding the "expectations battle" is the fact that customer expectations are no longer shaped simply by your brand or your industry. As we are reminded time and time again, competition now is on experiential factors, and customers expect all brands to live up to the standard said by the best organizations.

If you do not make the effort to understand what makes your customers tick and assure your brand promises speak to a consistent ability you have to play on those passion points, you risk disappointing customers to such an extent that "doing a great job" will not be enough to win their loyalty.