Customer expectations are a strange beast. Often your company will be judge against the best companies in the nation, perhaps even the world. Customers don't do this because they have high expectations, they do this because other associated experiences have trained them this way.
Your not only judged by other companies in your industry, but judged by every company a customer experiences. Yes, your national based software company with limited resources is probably being compared with Microsoft's seemingly unlimited resources.
How does a company cultivate customer expectations while growing relationships?
It is a smart strategy to base your efforts on nationally accepted measures, even in a local market that takes very little to be the better provider. If you aren't a national quality competitor, the market is still open for a better solutions. It only takes one company to come along with more resources to put a substandard company out of business.
You also want to know as much as possible about your customers. Often the bar set by national leaders is too high to reach, the only way to put a realistic prospective on the comparison is by understanding details of your customers needs. When you can identify, address, and solve real problems for a group of customers, you'll be judged based on experiences with your company-- not abstract concepts of service.
Finally, you want to develop reasonable expectations in your core profitable customer. You can't be all things to everyone in your industry, but you can be everything to a small profitable niche. Focus on one or two actions that your company does better than anyone in the market place. Lead with this unique selling proposition by teaching customers what they should expect in your company, product, or philosophy for service.
Incorrect assumptions about doing business with your company can be corrected by satisfying the customers you have by providing consistent results, addressing real problems faced by customers, and differentiating your company by standing out in a few critical areas. You won't satisfy every customer, but the few you do will establish new expectations for prospects to come.
By basing your efforts on national leaders, knowing your customers, and developing reasonable expectations, you will be able to grow relationships while developing customer expectations of what you provide. Business is a difficult endeavor, but now with mass communications it's easier than every compare products. If you're not the best in your industry or niche, customers won't take you seriously and soon someone better will come along.