Does Having High Expectations for Companies Improve Their Service?

The Pygmalion Effect works on individuals — what about companies?

One day, all companies will have, at the very least, adequate customer service.

That’s my self-fulfilling prophecy — my false belief that will become true over time.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

A couple of weeks ago, I lamented: Is good customer service really that hard?

There is still room for improvement.

Do I have unrealistic expectations as a consumer?

… I don’t think it’s unreasonable to set our standards high as consumers.

As it turns out, high expectations are not only good, but a prerequisite, to improved customer service. Yet, change starts with the customer.


In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who carved a statue so beautiful and realistic that he fell in love with it.

Pygmalion prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who brought the statue to life, enabling the couple to marry.

The Pygmalion effect comes from research on student performance in the classroom by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson:

the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rosenthal and Jacobson studied the impact on teachers’ expectations of students’ performance. The researchers took the IQ tests of students, and informed teachers that 20% of the students were “gifted”. The gifted students were chosen at random, but their names were disclosed to the teachers.

At the conclusion of the year, IQ tests were re-taken, and while all groups IQ tests had improved, the “gifted” students showed statistically significant gains compared to the rest of the class.

The teachers had higher expectations for the “gifted” students, and subsequently their behaviors towards them led to greater performance then the performance of those individual students was greater than the other students in the class.

Conversely, the inverse of the Pygmalion effect holds true, as well — lower expectations can lead to lower performance — what is known as the golem effect.

Both effects, whether positive or negative, are self-fulfilling prophecies. The expectations, and our beliefs, cause themselves to become true through feedback loops.

Self-fulfilling prophecy feedback loop.

With positive expectations shown to have a positive impact on student performance, subsequent research took place in the workplace, to assess impact of leadership expectations on company employees.

As was seen in the classroom, leaders who had higher expectations for individual employees treated them differently — setting stretch goals, assigning greater responsibility, providing additional learning opportunities — which in turn impacted employee behavior and performance.

And the relationship works in both directions — employees who have high expectations for their company leaders were found to be more supportive, subsequently bolstering the leaders’ performance.


With my newfound understanding of the Pygmalion effect, I realize in hindsight that my negative attitude towards customer service has been a problem, stuck in a negative feedback loop.

We need to look at the feedback loop from the employees’ point-of-view, as that’s the behavior we are trying to improve —

If we believe employees’ levels of service are inadequate, it is going to reinforce their belief that they are inadequate, which subsequently results in poor(er) service.

When we ask to speak to a manager, we are demonstrating the belief that the manager provides better service than the bottom rung employee, further reinforcing that truth.

However, the Pygmalion effect shows positive expectations will lead to positive outcomes —

While a 5-star concierge may provide excellent customer service, their ability to provide excellent customer service is reinforced by customers’ expectations that a 5-star concierge will provide them excellent customer service.

Whereas with a call center, it’s exactly the opposite.


To receive better customer service, I need to believe that every call center employee I speak to on the other end of the line is one of the “gifted” employees, and treat them as such.

Self-fulfilling prophecies bring false beliefs true over time.

Hopefully sooner rather than later 😁.


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