The Sprinkles Approach to Innovating Service


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I am enjoying a love affair with sprinkles!! Not only is it the title of my newest book, it has opened up a fresh and vibrant world of novel ways to turn good service into really special service. It has provided a charming portal into the world of service ingenuity—the type that awes instead of wows; compels a customer story, not just coerces a customer’s return.

Innovative service aims to surprise customers through an experience that is unique, simple, and unexpected, yet appropriate. But, it is more than a typical customer surprise. It is less like a delightful Easter egg hunt (you know what you are going to find just not where you’ll find it) and more like an enchanting treasure hunt (you have no clue what you are going to find or where). When a waitress gave me an “on-the-house” go-cup of coffee at the end of my breakfast, it was a surprise for which I thanked her. It turned innovative when she decreed it: “Our gift to you.”

So, what do sprinkles have to do with innovating service? They are a metaphor for the features of innovative service. Good cupcakes or cookies are turned into gourmet when decorated with sprinkles. Unlike fancy cake decorations, sprinkles are carefree and without pattern. Adding sprinkles to desserts, like adding ingenuity to a customer’s experience, requires no more skill than putting pepper on scrambled eggs. However, it does require a desire to step outside the norm and embellish the customer’s experience. It takes the passion and courage to abandon the service “recipe” and experiment with originality. It entails a focus on warming a heart, not simply meeting a need.

But, you’re not innovative or creative, you say? Perhaps you have not been looking at the right source. What if you picked something random and applied it to your service experience? Sprinkles…the new book…does that with a gourmet theme and chapter titles (principles) crafted to unleash service insight. Here are three Sprinkles principles that can help you concoct an experience that can get your customers talking.

“Put a Cherry on Top of Great Service”

When the only First Bank & Trust ATM in the rural town of Tahoka, Texas went down, customers were unhappy. They were forced to use the only other ATM in the area at a convenience store where fees were considerably higher. And, when it took several weeks to get the ATM operative, unhappy customers were accustomed to going to the convenience store for their cash. First Bank & Trust found a way to lure customers back to the bank’s ATM–“sprinkles.” They ran an ad in the local paper that told customers not to think it was a mechanical glitch if they received a fifty-dollar bill instead of a twenty-dollar bill when they used the bank’s ATM. Word spread as customers told neighbors when they hit the ATM jackpot!

“Let Your Customer’s ‘Lick the Beaters’”

Matt Garofaio, owner of the Oconee Cellar near Lake Oconee, Georgia, decided to have a well-known bourbon brewery create a signature bourbon for him to sell in his upscale liquor store. The brewery formulated five different distinctive options and sent them to Matt, each in a clear, numbered bottle the size of an old-fashioned cough syrup bottle. Now, how do you think Matt chose his special brand of nectar? He invited his best customers to taste test each of the five bourbons and register their preference. So, how many customers do you think will place orders for their “co-created” beverage? Customers will care when they share.

“Be as Easy as a TV Dinner”

A very gloomy Wall Street Journal on a long flight left me with a headache. As soon as I exited the jet way at the San Francisco Airport, I headed for the nearest newsstand for some relief—Advil. I opened the plastic package and removed the two tablets in foil for some quick relief. Tucked behind the foil was a collapsible paper cup just big enough for two large swallows of water. What simple service innovation! Stressless service starts with examining your customers’ experiences through their eyes. It might involve calling your department, disguising your voice, and asking for something out of the ordinary to learn what customers go through. And, in this era of self-service, it means ensuring there is always high touch along with high tech.

Innovating is the result of focused daydreaming–letting reality blend with fantasy in a totally non-judgmental manner. It surfaces when you are willing to take the risk to rearrange order and upset the tried (or tired) and true. Innovating ensues when you ignore mind-limiting barriers and giggle at conventions that are mere form. It is there when you find joy in the simplicity of life and allow yourself to be completely awed.

Innovation appears when you engage others in your treasure hunt–a customer, a colleague, or someone unrelated to the challenge. Innovative people become friends of the bizarre; partners with the uncommon and view failure as merely feedback, never rejection.

There are many paths to innovating service. What if you chose a different set of eyes to examine what you are seeking to solve? What would a group of first graders suggest? Or, a wonderful wizard? What would Walt Disney do? What if you turned your problem into a play, a food, an old movie, a celebration, a book title, a famous character, the combinations are endless.

What if you made your customer’s experience smaller, done alone, done in reverse, done with a guide, greener, more romantic, slower, done with elegance, easier, more inclusive, faster, done remotely…keep going! There is a creative person inside each of us waiting to emerge to make service so gourmet it becomes a delectable dessert, not just an essential entre.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( 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 like your thinking, Chip. We need more mutual value creation. And it’s true that any employee can come up with simple things that do that. The smartest customer experience professionals create easy processes to empower everyone to chime in. I’ve noticed that Adobe and Intuit do this for B2B, with peer review boards that can fast-track assessment and nurturing of ideas.

    I’d say value creation is the #1 way to compel existing customers to rebuy, recommend, and expand their share of budget with a company. Somehow a lot of executives have gravitated to almost force-fitting these behaviors through enticements. Some industries have jumped on a bandwagon of bad profits by monetizing things that were previously gratis without adding mutual value that offset the pinch on customers. And that’s probably why there’s such a high percentage of executives who’ve lost confidence in customer experience ROI. It has to be earned through trust . . . typically via ease-of-doing-business and creation of additional mutual value.


  2. Hi Chip. I really dig your “Sprinkles’ idea and your new book!

    At Lands’ End when I was there, we called them ‘touches.’ And as you say they were about for us, being deliberate and thoughtful.

    For example, we always included a shoe horn with men’s loafers. One winter we sent out cedar blocks with cashmere sweaters to store the sweater for their summer nap without getting bug bitten. When we started the kids’ business, we printed the flaps of the biggest shipping box with the head and tail of a cow, a sheep or a horse, so kids could ride that big box all over the house. 25 years later when I tell that story sometimes on stage, people say they’ve kept those boxes all these years.

    The challenge is that many companies consider these things expenses, when in fact they are investments and magnets to the relationship. But it’s hard to do these things when for example, the pull of margins eliminates a merchant or a manager to even think of adding in cost. To tackle this at LE I had a budget to fund these items so that when push came to shove, the merchants wouldn’t take them out to make a better margin. The world has changed a lot since then…but these are some examples that go so well with your ‘sprinkles’ analogy that i wanted to bring them up.

    I actually think that customers are really impacted by these touches, but that not many companies are thinking of these things as investments. Like that little cup you found in your Advil, these are pretty small investments…but someone’s got to think and be deliberate about making that moment happen.


  3. Thanks for the comments, Lynn and Jeanne. Love the stories that make the concepts come alive. And, aliveness is too often the missing ingredient! The more we sanitized, homogenize and mechanize the customer connection, the more it can remove the emotional value. Loyalty is, after all, an emotional construct not a rational, logical one. Let’s keep the conversation going!


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