The Small Wow! Simple Surprises Can Delight Customers


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It’s Wednesday afternoon and you’ve come home early because the new dining room furniture is being delivered at 3. Precisely at 3, the telephone rings. It’s the furniture store: “Just wanted to let you know that our delivery guys are running a little late; they’ve been held up in traffic, but they’ll be there by 3:30. Sorry.” You hang up with a smile and think, “That was nice of them to call.”

That really happened to a woman who participated in a recent customer insight session I led. “Sarah” had inconvenienced herself by having to leave work early, the furniture delivery was late and, yet, she was smiling. It was simply because she was not expecting the phone call. Few companies are that courteous. That fact that this one was created a small “wow!”

There’s lots of research to support the notion that service levels are perceived to be abysmally low.

Everyone loves a surprise. My associates and I spend a lot of time talking with and listening to customers on behalf of clients. We unearth many examples of situations where customers are impressed or (to use their language) “blown away” by some little thing they just weren’t expecting. In focus groups and customer insight sessions, often in customers’ homes or offices, we probe for examples of things that have truly impressed them; things they’d love to have happen more often.

Whenever you can get a customer to say, “That was nice,” you have struck a chord. You have shown the person respect and consideration. You have made her feel better about her decision to deal with you.

Recently, I was walking through an Ivanhoe Cambridge shopping center. Ivanhoe Cambridge is a Canadian client and a very customer-focused company. As I turned a corner, I could see a small crowd gathered. Then I heard the lilting piano music. A couple of dozen shoppers had stopped to listen to the young pianist. They seemed relaxed. That was a nice touch. A small “wow.”

My wife and I were checking into our favorite Montreal hotel, looking forward to a relaxing weekend of shopping and art galleries. The front desk clerk, whom we recognized from our last visit, said: “We’ve put you in a corner suite this time. I think you will like it.” It was clear that the clerk remembered us, too. Another small “wow.”

Little gestures

The element of surprise is tremendously important in creating positive feelings toward your business. But you don’t have to spend a ton of time and money planning over-the-top extravaganzas. In fact, our research with the customers of both business-to-customer and business-to-business firms tells me that customers are far more likely to appreciate the customized little gestures that involve your singling them out for attention.

It’s all connected to customer expectations. When you ask customers what they expect of a company, they tend to provide quite predictable answers. They expect you to do well what companies in your line of work are generally expected to do: good quality products, reasonable prices and good customer service. They often can’t be any more specific than that.

Customer expectations are generally fairly low. Thankfully, many of your competitors haven’t exactly raised the bar. So it’s easy to impress a customer. There’s lots of research to support the notion that service levels are perceived to be abysmally low. Just check on the volatility in the American Customer Satisfaction Index or Google “customer sucks,” if you have any doubt about how customers feel about service levels. Standing out from the crowd often involves little more than doing what’s expected better than the other guy.

Creating small surprises that make an impression on customers also doesn’t have to involve giving things away, although that can represent a nice touch on occasion. For example, when service is unreasonably slow, many restaurants will offer free drinks or dessert as a peace offering. It works to appease customers, but it’s becoming more or less expected by some.

In such a situation, the “surprise” is being used to compensate for inferior quality of product or service. The customer who has been wronged is expecting something and may not be surprised when it is forthcoming, feeling he or she was entitled to at least that.

Effective small surprises also cannot be allowed to become the routine. The best example of this involves what hotel companies call “amenities.” Many of the larger chains place gifts in the rooms of regular guests or of gold members of their frequent guest program. These may include bottled water, dried fruit, macadamia nuts, wine and cheese or a signed note from the general manager. The problem is that the amenities become expected and no longer surprising.

Once it becomes a routine, it’s not special. I am a regular guest at Hilton Hotels and a Platinum HHonors member, but I leave more than half of the amenities behind and untouched. Amenities are also typically not personal; every “special” guest gets the same macadamia nuts. These gestures are no longer special or surprising; they’ve become routine.

The kind of small surprises that work best are those that are unscripted, it happens because some very observant employee spots an opportunity to do something for a customer that will truly impress her. These are not necessarily things for which you need to set aside a huge budget. In fact, many will cost you absolutely nothing; like that call to tell Sarah that the delivery guys are running late. What is most needed is a group of observant, empathetic and empowered employees who know how to bring a smile to the customer’s face.

It’s all about seizing an opportunity to turn the expected into the unexpected, or to take advantage of low customer expectations. Customers simply don’t expect most furniture companies to call when the delivery will be 30 minutes late. You can take advantage by being surprisingly attentive to customer needs.


  1. Jim,

    Good article. But about expectations. Yes, customers will not be able to articulate their expectations beyond what you list here. But it’s because they are not asked in the context of the provider’s total solution and the value it brings to the customer’s overall problem or work to be done. Expectations are usually asked in the context of the supplier’s products and “related” services, not what the customer is trying to accomplish in a broader sense.

    For example, the furniture company “knew” that its customer was trying to solve several problems at once: get the furniture, take as little time off as possible, and possibly plan and accomplish other tasks after the furniture was delivered. This required understanding the customer in the context of something more than the “furniture.”

    Expectations have to be learned by asking customers about their overall goals and the overall results they are working to achieve. In other words, the context has to be broader and you have to truly be interested in customer overall success that goes beyond the smaller success gained by buying a supplier’s products and related services. By learning about customers this way, expectations are turned into the experiences that become surprises.

    Your thoughts?

    Jonathan Narducci
    CornerStone Cubed
    Building Customer Powered Value

  2. Hi Jonathan

    We seem to agree again. You are exactly right. Customers are usually unable to voice expectations beyond the bounded perspective of what companies in such a setting typically do. The don’t typically call to say they’re running late. Therefore, to do so allows the furniture company to exceed quite reasonable expectations. Sarah may actually have “expected” them to be late.

    When you speak of context, I think you are moving beyond expectations or at least into a different view of expectations. Having said that, I agree with you completely that the best way for companies to exceed customer expectations is to better understand the context in which the customers is operating — what he or she is trying to get done. I spend a lot of time, in fact, in my latest book talking about the central role of customer context in building a customer strategy. Clayton Christensen of Harvard in a series of recent articles talks about the “jobs that customers are trying to get done.”

    The more we understand customer context, the better we are able to inject ourselves into that context and to offer solutions. These may not involve conventional components of the value proposition, but rather little twists or gestures that the customer is not expecting because it’s not how companies typically behave in such situations. In that sense, these do exceed expectations, but they are surprising because the expectations are subconscious and unvoiced. That’s why they are surprises.

    Your thoughts?

    Jim Barnes

  3. Jim,

    Thanks for the response. And , you’re right, we do agree. I just believe that it’s extraordinary when companies “inject” themselves into the customer context and, yet, it’s the “unconventional” components of the value proposition that are needed in our customer centric economy.

    Do I believe that surprising customers is necessary? Can’t hurt. But I believe that customers don’t work with, or buy from, companies for surprises but solutions, the most complete solutions. Their “surprises” should come from the robustness of the solutions, the components that weren’t expected to be there but were because the supplier paid attention to the context. I believe that the phone call to Sarah was a part of a robust solution with an “unconventional” value proposition component.

    I also believe that, yes, we should keep “surprising” our customers with unexpected value, but those constant surprises come because suppliers know and keep up with the changing customer context and keep modifying the value proposition for robustness.

    I do have a question about surprises. We know that customers don’t like negative surprises – they tend to cost them time, money and other resources – but do we know if customers like positive surprises? Is it easier for customers if they understand the value propositions components and how they can depend on them versus not being able to plan on using the benefits effectively?

    For example, if Sarah knew that a phone call was part of the proposition then she could have (possibly) planned on using it to her advantage – give the furniture company her cell phone so she could be on the road up until the last minute so, if she did get the call, do other things before going home.

    Again, thanks for the reply. I really like the way you think.

    Jonathan Narducci

    CornerStone Cubed
    Building Customer Powered Value


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