I recently visited two clients who established a Customer Service Departmental goal of “always exceeding customer expectations.” One of the companies even instructed the front line customer service representative (CSR) to end the call or email with, in part, “I hope I have exceeded your expectations.”
While some customer experience (CX) experts have argued that the service objective should be to exceed expectations every time, this is not realistic and could be expensive. This year, Reuters Events hosted a customer experience webinar entitled: “Next Level CX: Exceeding Expectations in a World of Rapid Change.” Pine and Gilmore in the Experience Economy, tell the Nordstrom story where a woman demands and is given a refund for tires not bought at Nordstrom (she bought them at a tire store that used to be at that location.).
Finance executives suggest that a refund, in that case, is inappropriate. Having a goal of ALWAYS exceeding expectations is unrealistic and can be demoralizing for the front-line staff with no hope of ever meeting the stated objective.
Other practitioners and academics suggest that delight is not worth the investment. There is a healthy debate about how cost/effective it is to try to delight customers, but the debate lacks clear data. Dixon, Freeman and Toman (Dixon, et.al), in the July 2010 Harvard Business Review, titled their article, “Stop Trying to Delight Customers!”, arguing that it is not cost-effective. Dixon, et. al. report the results of a comparison of customer loyalty of satisfied vs. dissatisfied customers, not delighted customers.
Satisfied customers are usually defined as customers whose expectations have been met. On the other hand, delighted customers are usually defined as customers whose expectations have been exceeded. Therefore, the case presented in the Dixon, et.al, article is potentially not applicable to the central topic of customer delight.
The real answer is that both sides of the argument have been flawed. The proper strategy is to create delight when it is cost-effective. The good news is that it is highly profitable to create inexpensive but effective delight 20-50 percent of the time. We share our methodology, key findings, implications, and recommended actions below.
We surveyed a sample of 2,519 households with incomes above $100K, which was projectable from a male/female and geographic perspective. Respondents were asked if they had experienced delight in the last six months and if so asked to identify the type of delighter and industry. About two-thirds had a delight experience. Customers experiencing delight reported an average of 3.5 delight experiences.
These customers were then asked to identify the experience that produced the most delight. The remaining third of customers who had not experienced delight were asked about their best good service experience. Both delighted and non-delighted respondents were asked their likelihood of future loyalty, word of mouth, social posting, and willingness to pay more for the same product or service from that company. Within each industry, comparisons were made between respondents that were delighted and those that they believed to be their best service experience. Verbatim comments provided additional detail.
Here are the five key findings from this research.
1. Delight can be delivered cheaply via CSR actions, behaviors, and words
We found 15 approaches to delight, ranging from transparency, patient explanations, and enthusiasm – to quirky humor, surprise freebies, and tailored experiences delivered by empowered employees.
The approaches are listed on the left-hand column of Figure 1. This figure also shows the percentage of customers experiencing a delighter, who indicated they would pay more for the same product from the same company based on being delighted. Surprisingly, the experience that leads to the most consumers willing to pay more is being cross-sold other useful products.
Delight can be achieved by personal interaction as easily as monetary means. For many delighters, the only expenditure required is the time to listen and then respond with emotion and information. The seven actions highlighted with green arrows are all low effort but very effective delight actions.
What action creates delight can also vary by customer and can often be literally opposite experiences tailored to the customer. For example, I arrived on the Club Floor of the Tokyo Ritz Carlton at 7 AM and looked for the usual coffee urn to grab a quick cup of coffee. There was not one in sight. I was approached by a staff person who asked, “Would you like coffee?” When I replied in the affirmative, they went in the back room and came out in two minutes with a fresh-brewed (though rather small) cup of coffee. I drank that in two minutes and asked for another – again a 2-3 minute wait, same for the third cup.
I finally asked, “why no large coffee urn?” and was told, “that would not be personal service and we want to provide personal service.” Personal service could include providing coffee both ways so that two different segments can be simultaneously delighted.
2. Delight can be delivered digitally
When asked what primary channel was used for communication with the company, 48 percent of delighted customers reported that they used digital channels: email, chat, or social media. Figure 2 shows the breakdown of channels for the primary delight experience.
Figure 3, which reports channels used for all delight events (not just the most important) shows that every type of delight could be delivered by any of the channels. This is surprising because we did not expect that emotional messages such as enthusiasm and empathy could be delivered easily via digital. In fact, delight is almost as easily created by email and chat as in-person or over-the-phone interactions. We also found that live video chat calls were one of the most mentioned channels as at least one of the sources of delight.
3. Honesty and transparency are powerful delighters
Customers want to know the limitations of products and services they buy. Therefore, honesty and transparency, highlighted in yellow in Figure 4 below, are two of the top delighters. This is especially important in industries with complex or confusing products. For instance, in the auto industry, honesty and transparency are as important in producing delight as getting a great price. Likewise, transparency and honesty are strong delighters for e-commerce, financial services, and medical care. The right column in Figure 4 shows the rank ordering of the most important type of delight experienced by consumers.
4. Cross-selling is a major delighter
As noted in Figure 1, 66 percent of consumers who were delighted by being cross-sold other products indicated they would pay more for the same products from that company. The critical requirement is that the cross-selling is appropriate and tailored to the customer, which means that the CSR must know what the customer already has and their needs based on their persona or history.
While customers do not usually like sales pitches, if they feel you are making an effort to accessorize or help resolve a current gap in the overall experience, they will welcome the suggestions and walk away feeling delighted. For example, Harley Davidson finds most riders want to personalize their motorcycle and are enthusiastic to spend a great deal, often as much as the basic price of the bike, on chrome and other accessories.
5. Word of mouth (WOM) from delighted customers is more impactful than WOM from satisfied customers
In past studies, we found that satisfied customers will tell several friends and acquaintances about their positive experiences. When we take the next step of asking, to the customer’s knowledge, how many of those told about the positive experience actually act on the recommendation, we found that about 20 percent of those told are reported to have taken action. In this study of delight experience and resulting market actions, results for the same question show that, across all industries, at least 50 percent of those told were reported to have taken action on the recommendation.
This means that if six people were told (a median across all industries), at least two or three would take action on the recommendation. This is twice the reported impact of WOM from customers reporting good or satisfying service. Figure 5 shows the possible quantification of the impact for beauty and fragrance product experiences. A median of 5.5 people were told and an estimated 59 percent of those told took action, meaning that for each customer delighted, two to three new customers may be generated.
Invest in extra talk time to create delight – an extra 90 seconds of talk time will provide a 1,000 percent return if the delighted customer’s loyalty is raised by ten percent and the customer is worth $100. This is based on a one-dollar talk time cost to enhance loyalty ten percent for a $100 dollar customer.
Tailor digital to create connection and delight by equipping CSRs and the AI process with phrases that convey emotion in a natural and easily tailored manner. These phrases can convey honesty, humor, golden nuggets of information, enthusiasm, and empathy. Care must be taken that the same phrase is not repeated to the same customer – I had two United flight attendants compliment my tie on two flights the same day – Tuesday must be the compliment-the-tie day. With the right intel about the customer, delight via cross-selling can also be achieved.
Focus sales and service messages on transparency and honesty – this recommendation makes marketing and sales very nervous. Traditionally, sales does not stress the limitations of products. One marketing executive said, It’s not in the DNA of Marketing guys to talk about problems and limitations.” In fact, customers respect and welcome transparency. In the auto industry, transparency was as important as price in creating delight and loyalty.
Equip and train staff to cross-sell intelligently and deliver delight – assure that the CSR has detailed information on the customer’s account and ideally the persona, likes and dislikes, or use situation. Also, empathy and connection do not come naturally for everyone. Training and role-playing are critical.
Recognize and reinforce delight actions – One of the most effective mechanisms is the “Victory Session” where a team meets and each CSR tells about a customer they delighted, or tried to delight. Four things happen at once. First, everyone receives peer recognition. Second, everyone gets a new approach or phrase to use. Third, the use of empowerment is reinforced. Fourth, it creates the motivation to try to delight in future situations because overcoming a challenge will produce a great story to tell at the next team meeting.
Measure the impact of interactions to determine which actions work and which do not – use follow-up surveys with the customer, ideally via email so the survey can be taken at the customer’s convenience. See my discussion of the importance of survey channel selection in my article on 16 Survey Best Practices. (Link Here) Identify which delighter actions are most effective and which foster word of mouth that leads to additional customer acquisition. Incorporate delight actions into your marketing and sales plans.
Set reasonable targets for delight attempts and delighted customers – a mandate to make the effort to delight should be included in CSR job descriptions but left to their discretion as to when and how. Supervisors will need to encourage this effort and must be forgiving when a third of the attempts do not pan out. Contact center targets should also be realistic, such as starting with 10 percent delighted. A top-end goal might be 33 percent. In no case will over 50 percent of customers ever be delighted.
- Create a delighted category for your monitoring and survey measurements and start identifying current delight events and their market impact
- Brainstorm with your team other actions that should be tried and conduct a dozen rapid experiments. These should include extra talk time and encouraging creativity. Be prepared that half of the experiments will fail but you will have learned what works and what does not.
- Involved marketing, sales, operation, and compliance early so they understand what you are trying to do and are comfortable with the pilot test approach.
- Once you have quantitative data, start creating a strategy to use delight as a WOM management program.
 Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, Experience Economy, Harvard Business Review Press, 1999
 Matt Dixon, Karen Freeman and Nicholas Toman, “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers, Harvard Business Review, July 2010