Listening and Satisfying Expectations Improves Leadership


I love to engage with others. It challenges me to think differently about myself and the world. I am open to the difference. I find it enriching. However, I have to say my experience is that most people do not share this same passion. They will only go so far before the comparison becomes too painful, and they shut down. Being the dope that I am I often miss these telltale signs and continue trying to engage with them only to find myself alone and frustrated. Sometimes very frustrated. For me, there is nothing worse than not being heard.

On a personal level not being heard brings up feelings of being disregarded, unimportant, diminished in some way. I know that’s only in my head so who cares. The real and lasting impact is the relationship that was established is now broken. No matter the relationship it no longer exists when one of the two turns away from the other.

I’ve experienced this rupture many times over my lifetime; on both a personal and professional level. Some experiences were unpleasant. Others were downright painful.

Building and maintaining relationships is so vital to our sense of self and the communities we inhabit making each of them so very precious.

Sure relationships change over time and we must accommodate for those changes in ourselves and others but maintaining them is fundamental to human existence. Herein lies the challenge.

In my view, the best way to deal with the evolution in relationships is to be clear about and manage expectations. You put your expectations out into the world. And, the rest of the world sends their own back to you. It then becomes a dance of sorts to manage those expectations. When our expectations are unmet that we become introspective, questioning them. In the opposite direction, when the expectations of those around us are unmet we pull out those qualities of kindness, attentiveness, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and the like, which make us human.

As you can see, expectations are key to building and maintaining positive relationships. You have to listen to the other party and be heard by the them in order to hear and internalize each other’s expectations. Listening to and hearing expectations are the basis for strong relationships.

As a leadership coach, and former business executive, I have been repeating this mantra for decades.

Yes, business is transactional but clients want to have build a trusting relationship with the business. Heck, everyone in the business’s community wants to have a trusting relationship with your business: employees, bankers, vendors, charities, governments,… too. You have to create and manage expectations.

This is the cornerstone of my vision of business.

Easier said than done.

This brings me to four real life experiences I’ve had this year with well-known business who failed miserably in creating and managing expectations, as a result of which broke their relationship with me, and possibly a mutual client.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch

At the end of 2016, I walked into a Bank of America Merrill Lynch office to discuss the financing needs of a couple of clients we have in common. After exposing the first client’s challenges we quickly understood there wasn’t much the bank could do there. Fair enough. We moved on to the second client. After hearing their needs, the representative said they could offer me a product. Great!

Long story short, this representative brought in three colleagues from Wealth Management with whom I met and who confirmed to me this product was the solution and wanted to work with me to get it to our mutual client. I discussed the solution with her and decided to move forward.

I worked with the Wealth Management team for weeks setting everything up and negotiating terms and condition. Set up a meeting for the client to come in and sign the papers only to have the whole thing cancelled the day before the signing. No explanation was given.

Now here’s the problem. I didn’t come into the branch asking for a product I was already familiar with, they offered it to me. To my client, I should say.They created an expectation, not I. At the first meeting the product was offered and the expectation created. Then again, at the second meeting with the larger group of bank representatives. They confirmed this expectation through the numerous weeks of work we put into providing this solution to our mutual customer. They worked toward building a stronger relationship with their customer, and myself and then broke it by shutting down. Failure number one.

Not being one to let things go, I spoke with their boss who put another team on it. Again, assurances were made, expectations created, work put in, and then a failure to execute. That’s twice.

Still needing to satisfy my client’s requirements I pushed ahead for a third time with still another team with the same result. A third failure.

Not a little frustrated and angry, I decided it was important for the bank’s President to know what was going on at street level in the bank he was running so I asked my customer representative for the contact information. I wrote but never received a reply. For the forth time, an expectation was created and not satisfied.

Needless to say, our mutual client immediately entertained leaving Bank of America Merrill Lynch for their repeated failures to deliver on the expectations they created and the relationship she envisaged having with them. Six months later, she is still thinking about leaving the bank.

Thrifty Rent-a-car

A few months ago, I rented a car for a few days while my nieces visited with me. At the time of the rental, I decided to include a couple of extra days after they left to do some errands I had been putting off. Nothing strange or unusual, I thought.

My nieces and I had a wonderful time together and got all the errands done before they left so I decided to return the car early. Big mistake!

You see, Thrifty did not simply apply the same rate and knock off a couple of days from my bill they recalculated the rental as if I were renting that day. The price for less rental days multiples by three the original rental! What an idiot I was for thinking I would pay less than originally thought by returning the car early. Naturally, in the face of a bill that ballooned to three times the price I kept the car for the remainder of the rental, parked, doing nothing.

Now, I don’t know about you but I don’t expect to use a rental for less time and pay three times the price originally contracted.

Although Thrifty is conveniently nearby, I doubt I will ever rent from them again.


A New York law firm needed to send me, in southern Florida, papers for the sale of a family owned business. They chose FedEx just before the weather service announced hurricane Irma would hit. Needing to leave the area, I called FedEx asking them interrupt delivery and return the package to the sender as no one would be available to receive it. The customer service representative sent a message to the depot (or whatever they call it) telling them to not deliver the package and return to sender, and confirmed as much to me over the phone and recorded everything in the CRM system.

Like all good plans, something went awry. The parcel was delivered anyway, the hurricane hit southern Florida, and the it was lost. All investigations made by FedEx concluded it is lost. So I filed a claim to recover the cost to reproducing the lost papers contained in the parcel.

FedEx customer service sent me the claim form, I filed it, and not heard anything since. It has been almost a month of silence. I sent an email, as per the form, to inquire about the status of the claim and got no reply.

So what’s wrong here. First, the expectation was set that the parcel would be intercepted and returned to the sender. Failed. Second, the expectation was I could be made whole again by filing a claim. So far as I know, fail. Third, I could find out the status of my claim by sending an email to the email address. Fail, again.


After hurricane Irma, when it was safe to return to southern Florida, I sent four parcels of personal belongings down from NY. Having had such a poor experience with FedEx, I decided to try UPS. Big mistake!

At first, I went to a local UPS Store. The one and only person working in the store gave me a price quote but told me because of the hurricane UPS had suspended service to Florida. I could leave the boxes with them but they didn’t know when I get them.

So, I called UPS to verify this information and told it was wrong. UPS did indeed have service to Florida and they gave me a price quote around $40-$50 less than the store. No big deal. The store must have a markup. However, giving me the wrong information lost them the sale altogether.

While on the phone, I’d given the customer representative all the information necessary for the price quote so I asked him to process the order. To my surprise, he could not. WTF! All the information was already in the computer?! He told me I had to do it myself online. Not happy, I nonetheless followed his instructions.

Once online, I started to fill in the form but was blocked after the second parcel. Not finding any solution on my own, I called customer service again only to be told I had to create an account for more than two parcels. So I deleted the information, created an account, and started again. This was the now the fourth time in less than two hours I was treating the same information! Why didn’t the first customer representative tell me I needed to create an account?

I entered the information, insured the packages, and checked the box for a pick up. On the confirmation page, after payment, I received further instructions about my shipment including having to request the pick up. But, I’d just requested the pick up!?! Now I was confused again. A third call to customer service told me I hadn’t requested the pick up so I had to start that process and pay more money. Why the pick up was not included in the workflow the first time I’ll never know. Anyway, I scheduled the pick up, paid, and then fought with the form two or three times to correct the information it wasn’t saving properly. I waited for the next few hours until the pick up. When the UPS guy finally came he was very unhappy with his work but at least the boxes were on their way.

A few days later, back in sunny Florida, the boxes arrived. Some of the items in one box were damaged so I filed a claim. UPS’s claim department is much faster than FedEx’s. Faster at refusing the claim, I should say.

Although I provided them with all the documentation they requested they refused the claim on the basis that the package did not conform with ISTA 3A testing norms. I contested this point by indicating that the box was larger than those for which ISTA 3A was appropriate so they should honor the claim. They didn’t want to take this detail into consideration. One would think I purchased the insurance to protect UPS from me instead of protecting my belongings from accidents. Crazy!

Anyway, after speaking with two people in their claims department, it became clear that UPS’s color is brown because it like talking with a brick wall. They don’t want to hear anything the customer has to say.

As you can see, UPS did a tremendously poor job at the relationship with its customer. No wonder they’ve lost so much business and now have to provide line haul services for the post office. Next time, I’ll go to the post office and at least get a level of service in line with expectations.

Beyond my own concerns with relationships, these three examples illustrate two significant trends in our society:

  1. The public’s lack of trust in business and government institutions.
  2. How innovative companies are leveraging listening as a way of building lasting relationships with their customers.

As these four cases demonstrate, the relationship between the companies and their consumer is rather one sided. These businesses are more interested in satisfying their own needs before those of their customers. They abuse their dominant position in the relationship for their own gains. Likewise, their dominant market positions allow them to corner a market segment thereby limiting the market alternatives available for consumers to choose from. These dominant positions allow these economic players to communicate expectations in order to get the business but then to not live up to those expectations without any repercussions.

This bait and switch in business also exists in government where, for decades, we have seen politicians elected to office on the basis of political platforms that are hardly, if ever, executed once in office. It is no wonder we live in such a polarized economic and political world today.

It seems, all too often, we are being told what we want to hear in order to start a relationship – enter the transaction – but end up with dominant players exacting so much from us than we would like to permit. It is no surprise the level of trust we have in businesses and governments is so low.

On the other hand, if you look at a number of successful companies you see how giving the consumer the opportunity to be heard and considered sits at their center. Regardless of whether these companies are truly trustworthy, or not, they deliver on the expectations created and allow customers – often their whole community – to participate in shaping their future.

Using the most powerful communication tool we have to date, the Internet, AirBnB hosts and guests provide feedback to each other; car sharing companies – like, Uber, Lyft, and Didi – allow drivers and passengers to hear each other; and, Amazon sellers, hotel guests, and many more provide for at least one way listening. Social networks are prime vehicles for listening and possibly engaging.

Although still marginal, blockchain technology respond to this same human need for trusting relationships from just the opposite side of the coin, by creating a system in which expectations are met in the total absence of a trusting relationship. The cyberpunks who started the dabbling in blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and smart contracts did it starting from a worldview of distrust in institutions and the belief that self-regulating distributed system could remove trust from the relationship.

Although I have great respect for and an certain intellectual curiosity for this new technology, I am still old fashion enough to think the warmth of another human being is preferential to the heat given off by a computer. So I ask you when thinking about leading your business to look at your community (customers, employees, vendors, bankers, charities, governments,…) as welcome members with whom you have a mutual interest instead of as an adversary to be dominated at all cost. Likewise, when thinking about leading yourself – always a prerequisite to leading others – you should consider your community in the same way.

We need more listening, more hearing, more consideration, more authenticity, and more explicit expectations to have better trusting relationships; not the less which seems to be the norm today.