Missing in Action: Customer Surprise


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When I was ten years old, I did a very naughty thing on Easter. I secretly watched my parents hide the eggs. As my cousins and siblings rushed into our backyard on the hunt, I calmly went straight to all their 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 enthused.

Customer service for many years had more than its share of “squeals and grins.” My hometown grocer would give my brother, sister and me a free fireball when my parents were there to buy groceries. Fireballs were a super popular hard candy. It was not that long ago the mechanic would repair something he spotted defective when my car was on the rack and fix it without a fee. Today, such generous, unexpected behavior 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–value-added has gotten pricy. Rising customer expectations can be another culprit. After a great experience with Amazon, Nordstrom, Disney or Bubba’s Bait shop, our criteria for an A+ in service gets raised for every other service provider. But, one subtle perpetrator of surprise theft is an organization’s insistence on applying production thinking to customer experience.

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 plus an experience surrounding that outcome. Unlike products, a service cannot be inventoried but is created new each time. Therefore, there are no economies of scale for mass production and no stockpiling for a quick response to unexpected demand. The manufacturer controls the quality of product-making and the processes that yield efficiency, not the buyer. Customers don’t show up at the factory to help. The reverse is true for service—-the buyer 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 quality of the object and the efficiency of internal processes. With service, however, the buyer participates in creating the service experience with the service provider. Consequently, the focus must be on the quality of the relationship with the co-creator—the customer. And, in the end, the receiver of a service owns nothing tangible—thus the value of the service depends solely on a satisfactory outcome plus a positively memorable experience.

However, there is 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 a product, so uniqueness is a virtue of a service. Six sigma black belts taught the world to eliminate variance in processes so that manufacturing could yield greater productivity and therefore yield 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.

So, what happens when you apply production thinking and variance eliminating to the delivery of service experiences; especially since the very nature of surprise is variance? The most obvious examples are phone scripts. Remember, “Thank you for shopping at J-Mart, next?” or “Would you like fries with that?” Rather than rely on a consistent pattern—always warmly greet, put a smile in your voice, thank the customer—some organizations require a precise script. Unless the call center operator is a world-class thespian, the customer experiences robotics instead of authenticity. The memory that is made is so plain vanilla it is only a fleeting memory at best, certainly not one about which a customer might tweet.

Application of affinity programs is another way the management of processes now trumps the leadership of frontline ambassadors. There was a time the front desk clerk or gate attendant made decisions on guest room or passenger seat upgrades. Now, the computer, with its programmed rule-based fairness, makes that upgrade decision. In fact, in the airport, frequent flyers have learned to watch the board to see if they received an upgrade—there is no connection with a person. If upgraded, there is no returning to the friendly gate attendant for a new boarding pass. The passenger simply boards with the first class passengers and the computer issues a seat assignment. Consequently, the formerly surprised guest or passenger is today non-plused by this dull procedurally driven event and the hotel or airline’s quest for customer advocacy is completely lost.

Today’s customers expect experiences to be sparkly and glittery with a cherry on top. 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. It requires leaders trusting front-line employees to create not just execute. The more they are resourced and freed to be generous and ingenious, the more they bring their high esteem to the service provider-customer co-creation. The payoff? Customers who feel enchanted and eager to tell others.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


  1. I’m assuming that when you say “Today’s customers expect experiences to be sparkly and glittery with a cherry on top. “, it’s principally for entertainment purposes and to make what I understand to be your points that a) organizations need to become more customer-centric, b) be more proactive and anticipatory in the delivery of customer value, and c) leverage employees, through ambassadorship: http://customerthink.com/employee_loyalty_ambassadorship_customer_loyalty_the_winning_equation/

    When this is achieved, customers may not necessarily be enchanted, but they will be more emotionally bonded and connected, and will actively advocate for their preferred brand.


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