When I was visiting my parents recently, they suggested we try out a new diner that had opened downtown, which is a fairly economically depressed area. I agreed (especially as the alternative was a chain restaurant). The diner's theme is the town’s glory days - which is smart since much of the area’s older population often speak fondly about those days past. Unfortunately, it didn't seem that as much thought went into setting customer's expectations.
My first impression was the cling-on sticker on the door that discoursed extensively on how restrooms were only for customers. “Ok, maybe it’s a little gritty here and that’s part of the charm” I thought. Next, the woman at the hostess counter gave us a dirty look and didn’t even ask how many in our party (confirming in my head, yes - definitely gritty). Instead, I informed her that there were four of us. Still no words from her as she proceeded to a table with four menus. A very pleasant waitress came to take our orders but informed us that breakfast was currently unavailable, even though this was not noted on the menu. We were disappointed, but understood since it was 11am, and asked for a few more minutes to decide. When the waitress returned, my mom ordered the pot roast, but the waitress informed us that the “Meals” section of the menu was only served for dinner - though there was no indication of this either on the menu. This left a third of the menu to choose from labeled "Sandwiches".
It was at this point that my parents were ready to leave and so we did - not angrily, but disappointed. Our expectations had not been met. In diners around the area, you can order anything on the menu at any time - in fact the closest and most well-known non-chain diner serves all menu items, 24 hours a day. Our expectation of a "diner" was not met. It was okay that they didn’t serve everything at all times, but it was not okay that we were never informed of that until the second time the waitress came over and we tried to order. A few simple lines typed on the menu, or a quick sentence by our waitress initially would have changed our expectations and we would have stayed. Not meeting expectations is the only time I walk out of places rarely to return. On the way out, my dad even noted he was worried the food wouldn’t be good, since they had not met our expectations elsewhere. I want this diner to do well.* I want it to bring life to downtown - for the diner to be a place of community and commerce. I didn’t feel animosity against it, I felt nervous that it may not last very long.
You have the power to change expectations of your customers from the get-go. Your business doesn’t have to meet every person’s expectations, nor should it try - but it should be clear to people what your place is about from the beginning. People should know when they walk in, when they visit your website, when they see your business card, what your business will deliver and what it will not. This is why people will go to Starbucks everywhere - heck, this is why I go to Starbucks (besides the free Wi-Fi) - because my expectations are met 99% of the time (including the free Wi-Fi). Your business is not Starbucks, but you need to meet people’s expectations or they’ll walk.
The great news is that you set the expectations. If you have careless staff and mediocre food, but it’s fast and dirt cheap - then say that. You really don’t have to bat a thousand on everything. There are plenty of restaurants that have a dive-y environment, rude staff and great food that I will happily frequent because they've made it clear that that's what I should expect.
You set the expectations.
You make the rules.
You can win by your own rules.
You tell people what you’re going to deliver - through all sorts of messages. And when you deliver, everyone is happy. Not everyone is going to want what you’re offering (not everyone wants to eat in a dive-y restaurant) - but that’s good thing - because you really only want people to visit that are going to love your product and service, identify with your business and keep coming back.
Doing well is simple - be clear about what people can expect and then deliver what you say you will.
*Though we didn’t discourse on expectations with the diner employees, my mom let them know that they should have a note on the menu for when items are served so customers aren’t disappointed. We’re not heathens.