The Demise of Customer Surprise

Chip R. Bell

The Demise of Customer Surprise

What would an Easter egg hunt be like if the location of all the eggs were clearly marked with a red flag?  How would you like receiving a birthday present without any wrapping or colorful bow to open...just a Post-it note on the box with a handwritten: “Thought you’d like this dark blue tie?”

Customers today live in an over-stimulated, highly entertained world and consequently bring “service with sprinkles” expectations to all service providers.  Customers love real surprise!  Those innovative moments when the joyful, unexpected happens yields a great story to share with friends...over the backyard fence or over the Internet.  Unfortunately, we have so automated, programmed and managed surprise it now is assumed when it was once upon a time enchanting.  There is no “jack” in our customer service Cracker Jack® anymore, just the expected outcome delivered in the expected manner.

Do you think it is the friendly gate attendant who decides if you get upgraded as a frequent flyer to that coveted first class seat?  Not anymore.  The computer is now in charge—you watch the upgrade monitor, not the gate attendant.  You don’t even get a new boarding pass with your upgrade just a computer-generated seat assignment as you board with passengers in first class.  And, front desk hotel clerks once enjoyed the delight of surprising a frequent guest with an unexpected upgrade to the concierge level. But, in the quest for consistency and iron-clad fairness, management has let the system make that call. And the customer? With no emotional connection, loyal customers now assume they will be upgraded and are disappointed when they are not.  Attraction has become expectation. 

How did the customer’s balloon get popped?  What corporate Grinch opted for a predictable, consistent service experience over a surprising and captivating one?  Part of the blame lies with our love affair with six sigma thinking.  While the elimination of variance clearly benefits the efficiency of the production process it can take the imagination and generosity out of the service experience.  The very nature of surprise is inconsistency!

Tight margins are another culprit.  Leaders have ramped up their propensity to over-control all variables that impact the short-term balance sheet.  And, value-added extras can be pricey when multiplied across an entire organization.  An unexpected free go-cup of coffee might warm a guest’s heart in a boutique restaurant but that same practice across a large restaurant chain gets to be a sizable line item.  It is particularly risky when decision making about those heart-warming extras is placed in the hands of front-line employees, often with limited experience and part-time.

Yet, customers now view plain vanilla service as negative, not neutral.  If it fails to register very high on their delight meter, they go elsewhere.  We need to find new ways to bring back the old-fashioned “Jack-in-the-box” service surprise.  Value-added service needs to become unique and unexpected again.  That takes the ingenuity and generosity of a front-lined empowered to make the call, trained to make it responsible, and encouraged to make it creative.  It requires leadership with the courage to trust customer-facing employees to do the sensible thing, not just the crowd-pleasing thing. And, it entails rethinking the very principles that guide customer experience-management.

About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker, customer loyalty consultant, and author of several national and international best-selling books.  His newest book is The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service.  He can be reached at