The Loss of Customer Surprise


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B.F. Skinner was the renowned Harvard professor who did research on motivation that you likely studied in psychology 101. His research focus was primarily on how various types of reinforcement impacted behavior. Like most scientist of his ilk, he did experiments on rats and pigeons. One of his most well-known experiments involved pigeons. Here is the really short version.

A pigeon was placed in a box with a food dispenser. The pigeon quickly learned that by picking a round, medal disk, a pellet of food would be dispensed. Skinner wondered how the schedule of food dispensing might motivate the pigeon to peck the disk more. So, he set up three identical boxes, each with a pigeon. Box A gave the pigeon a pellet each time the disk was pecked (continuous reinforcement), Box B delivered a pellet every fourth time it was pecked (fixed interval reinforcement), and Box C surprised the pigeon with a pellet delivered on a completely random, unpredictable basis. Which pigeon do you think pecked the disk most frequently? You guessed it! The one in box C! Welcome to the slot machines at a Las Vegas casino, the source of 85% of a typical Vegas casino’s revenue! So, what does this have to do with customers?

Customers today are frequently bored with their service experiences. Blame it in part on their elevated standards for all customer experiences. Customers look at most websites through Amazon or Zappos eyes; most retail stores through Nordstrom or Apple lens. Part of their boredom is driven by their overstimulated, hyper-entertained daily lives. Stores have become sensory theater; TV and the Internet are as vibrant as Broadway after dark. If your service experience does not create an emotional connection, it is often labeled lackluster and dull.

But, the largest culprit driving customer boredom may be the absence of random surprise in customers’ experiences. Surprise is not really a surprise if it is predictable (like Box A and B). What is random about getting upgraded to first class as a frequent flyer with a coach ticket? You have the miles, the seat is available, and the computer delivers an upgrade. It has nothing to do with the imagination or charity of the gate attendant. When randomness is gone, the well-intentioned value-adds become a standard customer expectation, adding little value at all. Frequent flyers are even disappointed if they didn’t get their hoped-for upgrade. Attraction of loyalty has too often become programmed and apparent.

Randomness can be the enemy of six sigma black belts eager to bring consistency (aka, eliminate variance) in their quest to enhance efficiency and thus increase productivity. Applied to processes and products, six sigma has been a boon to effectiveness. But, customer relationships are neither predicable nor prescriptive. When customers get overly mechanical or scripted experiences (think: “thank you for shopping at JMart”), they view them as indifferent robotics, not genuine care.

Customers are obviously not pigeons, blindly making decisions based solely on their DNA. But Skinner would tell us, if you want to motivate customers to be loyal by exceeding their expectations, you can elevate the power (he would call it valence) of your value-adds by making them positive, valuable and unexpected! He would advise returning to the front line the capacity and consent to be generous and inventive in making customers swoon. Even in a time when margins are thin and baker’s dozen service is pricey, wise organizations know that investing in the innovation of those who serve can pay rich dividends in the form of ardent customer advocates.

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.


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