The Unfortunate Demise of Customer Surprise

By Chip R. Bell | 3.20.17

I have a confession.


When I was 10 years old, I did a very naughty thing on Easter. I secretly watched my parents hide the Easter eggs. As my cousins and siblings rushed into our backyard with their baskets on the hunt, I calmly went straight to all the hiding spots. I “found” a lot more eggs, but they had a lot more fun. They squealed and grinned when they found an Easter egg; I was far less enthusiastic. In fact, the Easter egg hunt that year was rather boring for me.


Like Easter, customer experience for many years has provided its share of surprise-driven “squeals and grins.” My hometown grocer would unexpectedly give my brother, sister, and me a free Fireball when my parents were there to buy groceries. Fireballs were a super popular “spicy” cinnamon-flavored candy at the time, so it was real treat for us. It wasn’t that long ago that my mechanic would fix smaller issues he’d spot when my car was on the lift for a larger repair at no extra charge. Today, such generous, unexpected behavior in any industry is rare.


What has made customer surprise such a scarcity? Some of its dearth can be blamed on expense cutting in the face of ever-diminishing profit margins. Extras cost, well, extra. Rising customer expectations is another culprit. After a great experience with Amazon, Nordstrom, Disney, or Jerry’s Bait shop, customers’ criterion for an A+ in service gets raised for every service provider.


But, the biggest, yet most subtle perpetrator of customer surprise theft is an organization’s insistence on applying production thinking to customer experience.


Object making versus memory making


Let’s take a quick look at how making stuff and making memories are substantively different.


When you buy a product, you receive an object; when you buy a service, you get an outcome and an experience surrounding that outcome. Unlike products, a service cannot be inventoried; it is created brand new each time—therefore, there are no economies of scale for mass production and no stockpiling for a quick response to an unexpected demand. Manufacturers control the quality of their product-making and the processes that yield efficiency. Customers don’t show up at the factory to help. The reverse is true for services: The buyer not only participates in, but also judges the quality of, memory making.


Since the product buyer is not a participant in product making, the manufacturer’s focus is largely on the efficiency of internal processes. With services, however, the buyer participates in creating the service experience with the provider. Consequently, the focus shifts to the quality of the relationship with the co-creator: the customer. And, because the receiver of a service owns nothing tangible, the value of the service depends solely on a satisfactory outcome plus a positively memorable experience.


There is, however, an even deeper dimension to the product-service difference. The core property of a product is form; the core property of a service is feeling or emotion. Just as uniformity is a virtue of product making, so uniqueness is a virtue of a service delivery.


Six Sigma black belts taught the world to eliminate variance in processes so manufacturing could yield greater productivity and therefore higher revenue. The service paradigm, while honoring efficiency and frugalness, recognizes the criticality of the human dimension and thus focuses on empowered employees able to adjust, adapt, and custom-fit service experiences to match the unique requirements of customers.


Trying to drive a nail with a B flat


So, what happens when you apply production thinking and variance eliminating to the delivery of service experiences? You get leaders trying to drive a nail with a B flat, so to speak. There’s nothing wrong with a B flat. Mozart used them all the time. However, when he wanted to do a bit of carpentry, a hammer was much more effective for driving nails.


The most obvious examples of production thinking are scripts. Consider: “Thank you for shopping at J-Mart. Next guest please.” and “Would you like fries with that?” Rather than rely on a consistent pattern—e.g., always warmly greet, put a smile in your voice, sincerely thank the customer—some organizations require a precise script.


Marketers sometimes point to brand consistency as their rationale for tight uniformity. However, unless the retail associate, hotel desk clerk, contact center agent, etc., is a world-class thespian, the customer is likely to experience robotics instead of authenticity.


The memory made as plain vanilla is essentially no memory at all.


Application of affinity programs is another way the management of processes now trumps the leadership of frontline ambassadors. In the travel industry, for example, there was a time the front desk clerk or gate attendant made decisions on room or seat upgrades. Today the computer, with its programmed rule-based fairness, makes them. In fact, in the airport, frequent flyers watch the monitor to determine if they’ve received an upgrade—there is no connection with a real person. It’s all logical; it’s no longer emotional.


Should a frequent flyer get an upgrade, he or she does not reconnect with a gate agent for a new boarding pass. The person simply boards with first-class passengers and the computer generates a seat assignment. The formerly surprised guest or thrilled passenger is today nonplussed by this dull procedurally driven event.


Ironically, the hotel or airline’s quest for customer advocacy is lost instead of shored up. There’s no emotional connection…just an almost predictable outcome. The customer watches the Easter eggs being hidden.


Today’s customers expect experiences to be sparkly and glittery with a cherry on top. They want niche, craft, small batch, specialized, and personalized.


Big box retailers are learning what happens when merchandise drives marketing decisions instead of experiences driving them. Store closings are less about changing buyer demographics and e-tailing and more about specialty competitors. Customers want buying experiences to be entertaining at a destination laced with squeals and grins, not just deals.


Sensory outplays functional; engaging bests efficient.


Meeting the challenge of rising expectations requires rethinking the role of those employees who are face-to-face, ear-to-ear, and click-to-click with customers. When service people are asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies.


This means leaders trusting frontline employees to create, not just execute. The more they’re given the resources they need to be generous and the more they’re free to be ingenious, the more they bring their high esteem to the “service provider and customer as co-creators” experience. The result: Squealing, grinning customers who feel enchanted and eager to tell others.

About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several national best-selling books. His newest book is Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles. Contact him at and @chiprbell