At least several times a week, I’ll be stopped by someone who tells me a customer experience story that caused them a significant letdown or disappointment.

The brands involved run the gamut from well-known offenders—like airlines, mobile carriers, and cable providers—to those we’ve come to love and trust—like Apple or Nordstrom.

Sometimes these are “necessary evil” interactions—fix-it situations where the customer is made to feel that the organization is only tolerating her and doing as little as necessary. Other times, the customer goes into the interaction with a preferred brand and things start out well, but the customer experience deteriorates when the request can’t be handled in a standard manner. The sales rep can’t see beyond company policy or the customer service rep can’t get beyond the preselected response on a computer screen in front of them.

In either case, the results are the same: another customer experience that does not live up to a marketing promise or expectation.

Building the Customer Experience to Match Expectations

How do you avoid this expectation mismatch? Here are five simple ways to bring promises and experience into sync with your organization:

  1. Test campaigns with actual customers first. This means going beyond simple A/B testing and actually asking customers whether your messages resonate with them—or if there’s a dissonant feeling that is likely to interfere with a satisfying experience.
  2. Debrief the front line. Talk to those in customer-facing roles to understand what’s working and what’s not, and where they see patterns of anger, resentment, or customer discontent. Ask them what they think might make a difference in overall customer experience.
  3. Shop the competition. You may not want to admit it, but your competition must be doing something right…otherwise they wouldn’t be competing with you and might not even be in business. Go through the entire purchase process with one of your competitors to learn what they do right, how they delight their customers, and where there’s room for you to go above and beyond.
  4. Mystery shop your own business. Send in an outsider to experience what your customers experience—in person, on the phone, and over the Web. Don’t stop with purchase—test your customer support and renewal or repurchase processes as well. Use the results to institute improvements.
  5. Always have a Plan B. No matter how hard you try, something will go wrong sooner or later. What’s important is how you respond to a mistake or problem—as well as how quickly you work to get issues resolved. How can you learn from mistakes and respond to feedback?

Focusing on the real-world interactions your customers see, hear, and experience will help raise the bar—and close the gap between promise and reality.