Setting expectations in plain English

A few months ago, my shower drain backed up while I was taking a shower. So I called the local Rotor Rooter and the person taking my call started asking me all sorts of questions about what I wanted. I didn’t understand any of what she was asking so I simply said:

“I want to be able to sing all four acts of Figaro at the top of my lungs without my shower backing up. However we get there is your problem.”

She laughed and understood immediately what I needed. “No problem,” she said. “We’ll get a guy out today.”

And the plumber showed up a few hours later. Humming Figaro*.

I tell my server hosting company, “I want to be able to sleep nights.”

I tell my printer, “I want that red Coca-Cola red.”

All the while they press me to define server specs and Pantone® numbers. I don’t let them get off the hook that easily. Once they get you to sign off on a particular color or server speed, they then point to you and say, “but you signed off on that” when you really meant “I want to sleep nights” or “I want a deep red.”

I understand the need to set clear expectations and boundaries, but I am not an expert in the business of plumbing, server hosting and networking or color spec’ing. I have a conversational knowledge but expect the people who are experts to be experts.

How do you define your expectations so you communicate exactly what you want without taking on the responsibility experts should have?

*He didn’t actually hum the entire opera, just the short familiar part. I shared this because it was obvious he and the dispatcher talked and she shared my expectation with him. That’s good; I had hoped story would trickle through. As it turns out, he was also well-read, educated and was politically aware. We had a deep conversation about the state of education and health care in America. As he worked on my drain, of course. For him, it was probably a refreshing debate he normally doesn’t get to have. For me, it was a reminder to never pre-judge a person by what he does for a living.