“I’ll run in and grab the key.” Mom and sister Maggie sat in the rental car, windows rolled down, travel clothes a little sticky after a long drive from Miami to Marathon. This was mother-daughter trip number five, destination: Florida Keys.
The approach was not how I imagined it. The internet has the drive from Miami to the Keys as a top fifteen most scenic drives in the country. I pictured something a bit more dramatic than the ten-foot chain-link protecting a two-lane, crusty, teal concrete median highway from the flat, scrubby Florida Everglades. I kept wondering why the huge fence. Alligators maybe?
Key Largo, eh. It looked a little like Shorter Avenue or the “strip” in any small southern town. Swap Waffle Houses and auto parts stores for boat parts and lobster trap storage and you are still home. Islamorada, better. A few too many tchotchke surf shops (is surfing a thing in the Keys?), but the Inn where the series “Bloodline” was shot is still there and pretty neat. They are still recovering from Irma, I thought. Give them a break.
“Look how pretty the water is,” mom blurted with overcompensating glee. Going to the Keys was her idea. Where, in January, can we go to get warm in the domestic United States? And true, the water when I could see it in the cracks between mangroves and markets was lovely, a little tease that I hoped to become a revelation.
We were there, Isla Bella Resort. “Wow, what an amazing gate. What beautiful landscaping!” Mom again. This time no eye rolls; Maggie and I agreed. Things were looking up.
I walked the path to a large, white stucco, mission-style reception building, opened the heavy mahogany door and entered a room with a lofted ceiling of wooden beams, geometrical floor of crisscrossed marble, crisp, white walls, long linen drapes, elegant reception desk with a delightful associate who seemed genuinely happy to see me. I had not yet opened my wallet when a handsome young man approached and asked if I’d like a glass of champagne. “Well, yes, please…in fact, make it three!”
Head out the door, the girl from north Georgia (that’s me) yelled, “HEY MOM! Y’ALL! CHAMPAGNE!”
Within three minutes, the looming disappointment lifted like heavy winter clouds. A sensory pleasing reception topped off with an unexpected glass of champagne was just the surprise moment we needed to set us on our happy way. And we hadn’t yet seen the sunset. That is a powerful moment the Keys can promise and deliver every time.
Bear with me if you will. Just for fun, here’s my attempt at travel writing: The seven-mile bridge must have been what they meant when they wrote about the drive from Miami to Key West. Truly spectacular and interesting as you travel back in time to Flagler’s Folly while the ghost railway escorts you to the final Key, the southern-most point in the United States. The Hemingway House with its 59 polydactyl cats, an iconic restaurant called “Blue Heaven” where roosters brush your shins with tail feathers while you eat and drink, the colorful, shotgun cottages lining narrow streets where decades of creatives have found love and inspiration or maybe even demise. The vibe is special and worth the ride.
Expectations vs. reality—it’s a classic conflict found in centuries of literature and art and now in this blog. Romeo and Juliet in their anticipation of love without boundaries, Laura Ingels Wilder and the “surprises” of life on the prairie, Gatsby and the green light just across the harbor that we all know won’t pan out. Jump to now and we have copious platforms of perfection: the Bachelor, Instagram, photo editing programs. All work to morph reality, increase our expectations and threaten to disappoint us over and over again.
It’s our own fault. Our platonic ideal is a meal by a James Beard award-winning chef, a ride on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a meet-cute with Kylie Jenner, or the quintessential HGTV open floor plan, illusions of perfection which trumped-up too much are bound to disenchant.
We live in a culture of billboards and large gestures that aim to grab our attention and make promises most can’t possibly deliver. If you are like me, then you are always on guard, and you never believe the promises without a good deal more research. It’s a reality that matches the gray of winter and sends us in search of the sun in the Keys.
And then there’s the BEST—that moment the sun shines brightly and a promise lives up or even exceeds our expectations. It’s that powerful moment of surprise and satisfaction that seeps into bliss and inspires the most raving of fans. These are the sunny moments we as humans and great businesses should seek to supply.
How do we tell our stories, make our promises in a way that compels excitement, energy, and conversion AND delivers in a way that puts a big, fat, lasting smile on the hearts of our customers? How do we manage expectations?
Under-promise and Overdeliver
There is true magic in humility. At one of the schools where I consult, the topic was report cards, specifically, how this school’s report cards are very special, part of its value proposition and should be duly promoted. Division Heads wrote an email to parents meant to precede the report card links. It said (and I paraphrase for effect), “Reports cards at this school are AWESOME AND AMAZING. THE BEST. NO ONE DOES REPORT CARDS LIKE WE DO. OMG, YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE THEM.” After a little discussion, we agreed to tone it down a bit with something like this: “They are substantive and individualized and not your standard report cards, and that quality is the result of a devoted and excellent faculty,” and “I have just finished reading the preschool report cards, and it is apparent to me how much our teachers know, appreciate, and love every child.” Why the change?
Expectations vs. reality case study 40,347. If you say the report cards are AMAZING AND AWESOME AND THE BEST and I open my child’s to read something like, “Susie and I have been working on…” or “Johnny’s attitude has improved…” or “Sally is working towards her potential…” and I expect to read, “Susie is the top student in the class…” or “Johnny has the best personality of any child I’ve ever known…” and even better, “Sally, like her mom, is brilliant,” then guess who is disappointed? Yes, this is hyperbolic, but you get the point.
“Disappointment is the gap between expectations and reality.”— From Sunday Texts of Wisdom, Dan Pride, husband.
Managing expectations is easy. Just tell the truth. Like an Audrey Hepburn little black dress, classically modest and attractive, it cultivates curiosity and rarely disappoints. Generally, report cards at this school ARE amazing. More specifically, they are amazing because they are so personal. Talk about that.
If your truth isn’t what you want it to be, then that’s where your work begins. Even then, the truth will set you free because someone is bound to still love you, warts and all if they expect and accept your reality. Anything less than honest will inevitably lead to dismay.
Authentic representation, please. I want to be pleasantly surprised.
We have a farmhouse that we tried to sell twice. I can’t help but wonder if the realtor platform over-promised and under-delivered in a way that disappointed prospects when they visited the reality of the home. Recently, we converted it into an Airbnb, so now the guest reviews tell the story for us. No more contrived real estate sales copy; just real comments by real people.
When you get on Zillow to look for a place to rent or buy, a house the size of your grandma’s retirement villa can look like a McMansion. Photographs are manipulated and words are chosen carefully. My favorite is a picture of a foyer that’s stretched photographically to look like the Taj Mahal and the caption uses the word “cozy,” which means it’s small. The big problem with misrepresentation is when folks take the time to visit, they are bound to be confused. Confusion rarely leads to a sale.
What if when we list our farm again, we write this:
Oxford Farm is for sale by owners who aren’t really that interested in selling because currently, it is killing it on the short-term rental market. Guests love it for all of the reasons they list in their reviews (see addendum). It’s a seriously choppy farmhouse that’s had three additions over the course of its 90-year lifespan. Two new knees and a brand-new hip keeps the old girl moving. You might get dizzy the first time you visit, but it’s a helluva good spot for hide-and-seek or if you need to avoid someone you don’t like very much. The privacy you get with actual walls is a nice contrast to the HGTV open floor plan everyone says they want until they wake in the middle of the night to their father-in-law snoring two stories down and three rooms over. We call it “Veen-all” siding and we love it. A little Clorox goes a long way to keep it white and looking spiffy. The pictures you see of the land are legit. It is beautiful. Massive amounts of organic horse manure keep the pastures bluegrass green almost year-round. Even better, the horses don’t talk and the neighbors leave you alone because they are country neighbors who live without convenience because they, like you, seek peace and tranquility. Don’t worry, if you get lonely, you always have the raccoons who are cute and great company until they get drunk on the cat food you left in the garage and dump it all over the floor. Hey, you can have a large kitchen island anywhere. Here you get a large scenic vista and a large country life. Oxford Farm isn’t perfect, but it is perfect for the right person. Come see if that’s you.
Create moments that make up the difference.
Chip and Dan Heath, in their recent book “The Power of Moments,” write about a hotel in California called The Magic Castle. It’s a 1950’s style hotel that’s been renovated but still pretty much looks like a Holiday Inn with the rectangular swimming pool and small courtyard. People love The Magic Castle because it exceeds their expectations not in how it looks but in powerful moments the clever staff there create to make the experience special, more special than the other place down the road that looks the same or the grand giant down the road that’s great but costs a grand sum. At the Magic Castle, there is a popsicle hotline where kids can dial-up from the pool anytime they want and ask for the flavor of their choice for delivery. They launder your clothes for free and deliver them to your room wrapped in brown paper and a lavender sprig. They may be limited in some ways, but their imagination for creating moments makes up for what they lack in comparison to other hotels.
The champagne moment at Isla Bella in the Keys was pleasing and added immediate value to our experience. The way they captured the sunrise and the sunset all on one “cozy” property also set this small resort apart from its competitors.
The report card that so aptly describes your child through deep narrative examples and compassionate personalization? It’s a powerful moment AND a keepsake.
It’s the golden hour at Oxford Farm and you sit on the living room sofa in front of the giant picture window with a glass of wine and watch the horses nibble away at the sweet bluegrass they so love–you will love it too.
What are your powerful moments, and how do they differentiate the experience for your customers? How can you communicate what you do best in a way that authentically represents who you are and how you are different than anyone else? How can you under-promise and over-deliver?
Both times I was pregnant, I died to know what the gender was prior to giving birth. Both times my husband, Dan, did not want to know. “Happy surprises in life are few and far between,” he said.
I’m not sure I agree with him. I think we can build happy surprises that are frequent and closer between if we put our minds and our messages to it.