Stop Trying to ‘Delight’ Customers, Says CX Expert Paul Greenberg


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Can you really delight your customers all the time? Photo by Katy Belcher on Unsplash

Stop trying to delight your customers. It’s a risky strategy that’s bound to fail, according to CX thought leader Paul Greenberg.

Known in customer relationship management (CRM) circles as the “Godfather of CRM,” Greenberg suggests businesses are better off consistently meeting their customer’s expectations.

Why Delight Is Unsustainable

Customer delight implies an element of surprise, which requires companies to exceed expectations. And while that can create a positive emotional reaction, it is not sustainable, he explained.

“You simply cannot delight your customers all the time,” he said.

Think about it. You do something exceptional for the customer, which makes him feel great. Then you do something else unexpected during your next engagement.

But like an unexpected bouquet of flowers from a friend, the element of surprise is what makes an experience delightful. Bring a bouquet of flowers consistently and you change the very act that was once so charming to an expectation.

As Tibor Scitovsky noted in his 1976 book The Joyless Economy, customers are only delighted by novel experiences. “Insufficient novelty renders the stimulation so obtained unsatisfying or only moderately satisfying,” he wrote.

Focus Less on Delight, More on Engagement​

Greenberg is the founder and managing principal of The 56 Group, an advisory firm focused on customer-facing strategic services. His book, CRM at the Speed of Light, now in its 4th edition, has been called “the bible of the CRM industry.” 

Greenberg thinks companies and brands should aim to keep their customers engaged rather than delighted.

“Do the things that I as a customer ask you to do that are simple, utilitarian, and make things convenient for me,” he said.

Exceed your customers’ expectations now and then — but not consistently — and “you’ll be fine,” he said.

“The most important thing a C-level executive needs to think about is, ‘How am I going to engage my existing customers so they continue to work with me?’ The key word here is engagement. That means companies and brands should have programs and strategies around engagement, and deploy technologies that enable engagement,” he continued.

Innovation is important, too. Say a company introduces a new, delightful practice. It’s so successful the company adopts it system-wide, transforming it to an industry best practice. At that point it stops being delightful: now customers simply expect it.

To exceed expectations, companies need to continually innovate and think outside the box.

The Allure of ‘Delight’

Despite the obvious problems of trying to delight your customers, marketers have been pressured to try.

Just Google the phrase “customer delight.” The search generates a flood of advice — from how marketers should “find new ways to reach, delight, and acquire customers” to warnings that “the best way for companies to create emotional connections with their customers is by ensuring that every interaction delights them.”

Even Warren Buffet, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the wealthiest men in the world, argues companies should delight their customers.

But by ignoring the notion that businesses are obligated to “delight” customers, we may actually open the door to better brand experience. Is it a more authentic goal to resolve customers’ needs by delivering the right product or service — in a way that makes those customers feel heard and validated?

Greenberg said companies should focus on valuing their customers. “When you have that built into your DNA, you will succeed in. It also meets the demands of the most demanding customers because it allows you to be honest with them.

“I’m not a big fan of the term transparent only because companies by law can’t be totally transparent. But they should be honest. And if you’re honest as a company, if you’re really concerned with the value you’re providing to your customers and making them feel valued, then you’re going to keep those customers for a long time to come,” he said.

Noreen Seebacher
Stasa Media
Noreen Seebacher is an experienced business writer, editor, reporter and manager. She has a keen interest in customer experience across verticals and the ways companies are adapting to remain relevant in the digital era.


  1. Of course Paul is right. Still, I would give a flavor to this CX topic. You cannot consistently overachieve on customer experience. You simply can’t. Because that is a vicious circle, as you indicate, too. A lot of it is based upon expectations. One needs to first cover the basics, which are availability and reliability. That makes you deliver effectively. Then become more efficient for the customer (not for yourself). You will not earn accolades on these levels, but can totally lose your footing with the customers. Then, if you have managed these stages, you have earned the right to once in a time surprise your customer. I call this a simplified Maslov pyramid.

    Thanks for your article

  2. Thank you, Thomas. It’s very true. As marketers, we need to perfect the basics before we try to ‘wow’ the customer.

  3. I agree with Paul’s point of view. I think the concept of ‘customer delight’ has exceeded its practical limit when people write about companies being ‘obligated’ to provide it. To me, ‘delight’ happens when something exceeds the baseline expectation. For many companies, that happens through employees giving extraordinary service. When managers demand too much of ‘delight’ from staff, employees will burn out, and customers will cease appreciating. When ‘customer delight’ mutates into ‘obligatory,’ we’ve ripped all the fun out of it – at least for employees. It seems more honest and genuine to rename it ‘standard deliverable,’ and detail the step-by-step methods in the company policy manual.

    Should companies try to raise the delightedness bar from there? The answer might lie in the numbers contained in the P&L.

  4. This point is supported by decades of research in behavioral psychology. In classical conditioning variable ratio rewards evoke the strongest behavior and are the hardest to extinguish. This is the point that the author has hit upon. If you are always delighting (fixed interval) eventually that “surprise” (reward) will be habituated and no longer viewed as reward, but as expected. You are not happy stoked to have a camera on your phone or to get a loaner car while yours is in the shop any more. Why? It’s an expectation now.

    By keeping “delight” variable you are making the customer happy and strengthening the relationship without reducing the potency of the reward (delight). This is also one of the tenets in KANO modeling where one time delighters degenerated into ‘hygiene factors’. So yes, keep the ‘special’ special by providing it in an unpredictable schedule. You must continue to deliver on the basics. Nice write up Noreen.

  5. Great article. The concept of “delight” or “above-and-beyond” is reserved for specific opportunities. Sometimes they fall in your lap and you recognize the chance to do something special. Sometimes it’s an amazing recovery from a complaint of service failure. But, most interactions are just times to be friendly, helpful and engaging. That’s what customers want and expect.

  6. A very interesting and relevant debate Noreen. I agree with the sentiment. In my opinion, delighting customers is an opportunity to differentiate – encouraging customers to remember their experience with you for the right reason. However, to be able to delight, you must first be able to get the basics right – something that is fundamentally more important. Trying to differentiate on delight when you are not consistently able to deliver the basics is like sprinkling fairy dust onto a mouldy cake!

  7. This is an old topic but worth revisiting. The classic argument against delight is that it will ratchet up customer expectations.

    The thing is, I’ve never heard of even one example of a company that has tried to exceed customer expectations all the time. Of course that’s impossible. That’s why no one does it.

    Delight isn’t delightful unless it’s infrequent. That’s the whole point, to make it a surprise.

    But let’s try the other end of spectrum, which is what the post title suggests — Never delight the customer. Just do what you promised and no more, not ever. How would that turn out?

    Surely there is a middle ground between always and never. And there is. My research has found that industry leaders do in fact try to delight customers — meaning deliver more than what was promised/expected some of the time. In products, services, pricing, and experiences. (Top brands tend to focus more on experiences.)

    Delight produces positive emotions and memories. These are essential to CX success. Just doing the basics are a foundation, but not enough to stand out in customers’ minds.

    So, I say keep delighting your customers if you aspire to be an industry leader. If you don’t, then follow Greenberg’s advice.

  8. Bob, you know better than that and you know that’s not what the article says. There is no “never.” Read what it says:
    “You simply cannot delight your customers all the time,” he said.
    “Do the things that I as a customer ask you to do that are simple, utilitarian, and make things convenient for me,” he said.

    Exceed your customers’ expectations now and then — but not consistently — and “you’ll be fine,” he said.

    How is that never? It says take care of the ordinary first. The things that the customer is expecting you to do and would be disastrous if you didn’t do. That’s first and foremost and then, on occasion, which is what delighting customers is all about, exceed those expectations. The key to delight is that it isn’t expected and when the event or effort is over, it isn’t expected again.

  9. Hi Bob, I don’t think Paul is suggesting we NEVER delight customers. Rather he’s saying that delight as a standard operating process is unsustainable – as anyone who has ever tried to consistently impress another person understands. Consider this: You take your partner breakfast in bed. At first, you’re the most awesome person on the planet. But as the days, weeks, months go on, this pleasure becomes an expectation. One day you decide to go to the gym early and don’t bring the breakfast. Suddenly, you’re the jerk! So in terms of customer experience, just don’t be a jerk. 🙂

  10. Noreen, your post title says “Stop Trying to ‘Delight’ Customers” and you attributed that to Paul.

    Paul, my apologies. I read the title and assumed that was a quote from you. Apparently not.

    Stop means stop. Not doing it any more. Literally “to cease from doing.” Which means never in the future.

    If I “stop smoking” then I’m no longer smoking. Nobody would say “I’ve stopped smoking” when what they really mean is “I only smoke once a day” or any frequency.

    The body of the post basically says the opposite of the post title. Keep delighting. I agree!

    One last point — where are the companies that are trying to delight customers all the time? I’d like to interview them and see how they’re doing.

  11. For every “delightful” experience there are many more “typical” experiences. These “typical” experiences are what drive your brand reputation in ordinary conversation, day after day. By setting the bar high on consistently satisfying experience — think Nordstrom, for example — companies deepen customer loyalty (rare in today’s digitally-powered customer-empowered era). I, for one, prefer consistency over unpredictability. I don’t crave delight. I crave respect, appreciation, quality, fair prices. A random cookie on a visit to a retail store may make me smile but it won’t buy my loyalty — not even a creme brulee macaron from Galeries Lafayette Haussmann (though that may come close).

  12. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder … and the only beholder that counts are the experience through the eyes of the customer. What “delights” one customer might be ordinary service for another, or over the top personalization may even turn some customers off.

    The point is that customer experience is not based upon a set of universal truths or standards. I for one would be delighted with highly consistent, quality service on the fundamentals … with some elements of personalization.

  13. What a great conversation! I think the danger here is getting caught up in the ‘semantics’ of words and phrases. I honestly believe that to strive to ‘exceed your customer’s expectations’ should be the goal for every business. How you do that will vary from business to business and customer to customer, and obviously, it has to make commercial sense. The definition of ‘customer delight’ that I like and use is ‘surprising customers with the level of service you provide’ (in a positive way obviously!) and I think that by consistently delivering great service, you may ‘delight’ them, particularly if no one else is doing it.
    That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to do those extra little things that make them feel valued – if it comes across as personalised and genuine, I think many customers will recognise that it might not happen every time. The worse thing a business can do is do those ‘extra’ bits when they haven’t got the basics right – that’s a great way to upset your customers!
    So, I’d say… go on, strive to ‘delight’ your customers…. and work hard to do it consistently! (Hope this isn’t a ‘cop out’!)

  14. Hi Andy: An essential competency of any business development professional is communication, so I see no danger in getting caught up in the semantics of words and phrases. To the contrary: understanding and dissecting semantics is our lifeblood. If we aren’t scrupulous about the terminology we use and what it means, how can we expect to achieve the right results? Further, how can we implement programs internally when meanings are unclear?

    When I look at strategic and tactical recommendations, I often ask myself: “How would this be put into operation? How would this get codified into decision trees for a software application?” “Be customer-obsessed!” or “Delight the customer whenever we can!” Maybe these are good ideas, but then there’s the challenge of converting them into policies, workflow, and algorithms. One reason a lot of lofty, well-intentioned marketing ideals never make it past being featured on framed posters in the biz-dev break room.

    Platitudes are catchy and easy to remember, but we lose efficiency when we constantly need to translate and interpret them. The problem becomes amplified when we start to wonder, ‘is stop what the writer really meant, or is it curtail?’ If it’s curtail, just say it!

    To me, good business practice means striving to maintain clarity of meaning and precision in communication. Toward that end, thinking about semantics and debating meaning is something that benefits everyone in our profession.

  15. Hi Andrew and Andy, I agree with you Andrew,. Communication and clarity of definition is essential. I don’t write the headlines. “Curtail” is a better word for what I am deeming customer delight and really, “limit” is even more appropriate than “curtail” in this case. I am not saying to eliminate customer delight – and when I say customer delight, I say it the way it is universally understood – exceeding expectations. It is what it is defined as. What I meant is that delighting customers is the what you do on occasion, when it makes strategic sense – and at times, even randomly, or even, at times, when it makes emotional sense. It is not something to do or aspire to routinely.

  16. I don’t believe anyone thinks (or is saying) that delighting customers is a bad idea. It makes for a provocative article title that piques readers’ interest and may result in an extra article “like” or “share.” I recall reading an outstanding book several years ago titled, The Effortless Experience. The only issue I had with it was the authors’ insistence that a focus on delighting customers was somehow misguided and less effective than focusing on reducing customer effort. When I wrote a 5-star Amazon review of the book, I made the point that it’s not zero-sum (delight customers or reduce customer effort). Both ideals are valid and can coexist. In fact, I’m delighted as a customer whenever a company or service provider reduces the effort I have to expend to obtain a product or service. And I don’t think I’m alone.

  17. Wonderful discussion. My concern, more as a consumer than a marketer, is that we seem to be more interested in delight than satisfaction. I cannot embed an image here, but you can see Interest over time on Google Trends for “delight” and “satisfaction,” worldwide, 2004 to the present, here:
    The tipping point occurred seven years ago. I think we all agree that satisfying customer expectations should be more important than delight.

  18. Noreen, can you share an example where a company has gone overboard attempting to delight you as a consumer, when they couldn’t get the basics right to earn your satisfaction?

  19. I can Bob! A friend of mine went to pick his brand new £20,000 car from the dealership and having signed all the documents he was escorted to his vehicle. On the back seat was a lovely bouquet of flowers and he was told that as he had a new car, they thought his wife would like some flowers – a nice touch. Dave jumped into his car, turned the key and the orange diesel empty light came on! He asked where the nearest garage was and they told him it was 250 yards down the road. “I just fill it on your account do I?” Dave asked. “Oh no Sir, it’s not our policy to put diesel in new cars” Dave jumped out of the car, grabbed the flowers and thrust them at the sales guy. “Oh no Sir – they are for your wife!” “How can I give them to my wife when there’s no bloody diesel in the car to get me home” replied Dave!

  20. Bob, I have an example from last weekend: A plumber from Applewood Plumbing came to my home to address a plumbing issue. When he arrived, he carefully rolled out a red carpet in front of the threshold to my front door. While here, as a courtesy, he offered to check the water pressure in my home: 120 psi (that’s about 40 psi too high). He then determined that the pressure reducing valve in the water closet had gone bad and suggested replacing it. The cost: $1,040. I thanked him for the counsel but told him that I’d wait. Within a few days, I received a handwritten thank you card in the mail from the Applewood plumber. Later that same week, I had a second plumber out to my home. He did not have a red carpet in tow, did not offer as a courtesy to proactively check for any other plumbing issues, and as of today has not mailed me a thank you card. But he did replace the valve for the cost of the part ($79) plus $160 in labor. That’s $801 less than the quote I received from the Applewood plumber. Who do you think I’ll call the next time I have a plumbing issue? Who would you call?

  21. Hi Bob, It’s the restaurant that hands you a rose as you come in to celebrate Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day – but then serves you a meal you can barely eat. It’s the retailer that entices customers every single day with coupons and discounts (looking at you, Kohls) but then cancels an order a customer placed for in-store pick-up because the item wasn’t actually available in-store. Here are some specifics. We order shoes. They were paid for by AMERICANEXPRESS $1.68 and a Kohl’s Gift Card $50.00. After the item was canceled Kohls refused to replace the gift card or reship the order from online inventory. Why? Because they “couldn’t see the gift card.” So ridiculous. Need more? I have them. 🙂

  22. Hi Noreen: I agree with Bob’s point that when it comes to delivering customer delight, ‘surely there is a middle ground between always and never.’

    I recently read a quote from Washington Roebling (Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge), “the precedent of exalted authority should never be blindly followed.” I think this happens quite a bit with Gartner and other people deemed ‘thought leaders.’ We tend to attribute gravitas or credibility based on who said something as much – or more – than we do on what that person said. I think that’s risky.

    Gartner is a respected company, but not everything they recommend is sound. Good ideas should stand on their own. I am not convinced that abandoning efforts to delight customers is advisable – regardless who made the recommendation.

  23. Hi Andrew, you realize I hope that neither I nor Noreen said abandon it. We just said that as a strategy delighting customers all the time doesn’t work. The whole IDEA of delight is that it is something you do occasionally that exceeds what the customer expects. What you do ordinarily is to meet those expectations. Continuous delight is a costly, risky proposition because the bar for what constitutes delight gets raised the minute that the delightful action becomes expectation. The best way to think about delight is that when it occurs the customer is surprised and very pleased that it did and when its done, they aren’t expecting it again. The best thing any company can do is take care of those things that the customer most expects of the company – which is to make the transactions and interactions as seamless and frictionless as possible when the activity is nothing more than ordinary. E.g. buy the thing, talk to an agent on the channel that you request, answer a question, get a response in a reasonable time. Those aren’t delightful relative to anything – they are the ordinarily expected results of a customer when interacting in some way with a business at the level more often than not they interact. Delight is special and should remain that. Not a strategic imperative for everything. No company can even afford that. Forget gravitas. This is just obvious business behavior that has no reason to not be the case of how you conduct your relationship to customers. You are right. Good ideas should stand on their own. When they make sense, they make sense regardless of who says it.

  24. From my perspective, there are parts of this post (and discussion) to be commended, and parts which cause some concern. The concept of delivering value delight on a consistent basis is a Nirvana few organizations can, or should, try to achieve. That said, “Exceed your customers’ expectations now and then — but not consistently — and “you’ll be fine,”, even assuming that the basics of value delivery are being provided, is also a potential mine field. The best companies typically somewhat under-promise and somewhat over-deliver on the functional and emotional components of value – – but they do so with consistency and reliability, as customers expect

  25. I love this. For years I have worked for businesses that are looking for an oversimplified number that measures a successful customer relationship. NPS is an interesting measure and one that has attracted countless CEO’s because it is such a single number but I feel strongly that it measures the wrong thing. How easy was that experience is a much better monitor on the level of customer experience. If it was not easy then why so?
    This approach makes it clear what a company needs to do to make the customer experience friction-less which correlates directly to loyalty for customers. I know it is not trendy to say this but we must focus on making it easier to be a customer than it is for them to leave.

  26. Sorry I have only just been referred to the conversation trail.
    I love everything being said here. As a customer service provider i am constantly debating whether a poor NPS number is driven by the customers most recent call or from a sum of their hardships over time.

    I also question the value of NPS. Really, would I EVER feel like telling my friends about mt telco or my insurance company??? However I do stay when they make it easier to be a customer that it would not. “I call them and they fix it”, “they moved more of my day to day needs on line” etc. reduce my effort to be a customer.

    I am a loyal customer of my insurance company because when I was robbed and when i crashed my car they made it easy to claim. Price became secondary. They do not WOW me they simply did as they promised.

    Our focus is now on ensuring we have the types of people that can hold quality conversation with our clients customers. They do not sound scripted but have the listening skills and the ability to “unpack” a customers actual need and resolve it in a manner that they feel “safe” after their chat.

    Please don’t think i am against automation or offshoring, I feel they are ideal for the simple needs. When a need is complex, and a customer needs to feel safe then a Good Conversation drives home why they should be loyal and why chose your company / brand in the first place.

    So lets start advocating for asking customers “How easy was that?” And engaging with customers to identify how to take the effort out of their day to day brand experience.

    Customer delight becomes the standard for the industry. The best example of this is the “loyalty Point Programs” on credit cards, retailer purchases and airlines. Now when I go to my local Caltex service station I need to swipe my Uber driver App, swipe my Myer one card, and swipe my Woolworths card.!! oh then I need to pay. It seems what started out as a way to delight (and track consumers :)) is a standard expectation and not the reason why someone stays.


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