Customer Experience and the “Element of Surprise”

How do you get your customers to talk about the experiences they’ve had with you?   Over the past week, I’ve had a few conversations with executives about improving their organization’s Net Promoter Score (NPS).  While there are certainly differences of opinion on the importance of NPS as a central metric for an organization’s performance with customers (see Randy Brandt’s Core Customer Metric blog), it goes without saying that…. customers telling other prospective customers great things about your business is…  well… a great thing.  Each of the people I spoke with have invested a considerable amount of money making incremental improvements in their products and services and are frustrated by their inability to move their NPS.

What motivates people to proactively tell stories about their customer experiences?  What is it about an experience that makes it a story worth telling?  What are the social and psychological benefits of telling these stories?  Telling stories is one of the ways that we connect with and relate to each other.   It’s a way that we blow off steam when we’ve had something frustrating happen to us.  It’s also a way that we re-live the positive experiences we’ve had… or even a compelling way to share a story about “the next cool thing” we’ve found.

One of the most important drivers of both positive and negative word of mouth is the element of surprise.  This can be a single big surprise or a steady stream of small surprises that build over time.  If you have an experience that surprises you in some way, it creates an orienting response… you pay attention to it.  It might be something small, like a salesperson that is friendlier than expected.   Or something more significant, like Delta Airlines knowing it was my birthday and giving me a bottle of Champagne as an unexpected surprise.  This happened 8 years ago and I still talk about it.   The same thing happens with negative surprises.  We’ve all had them… and we’ve all told lots of people about them.

Some industries, like the airline industry, seem to be highly skewed towards lots of negative surprises.  Delays, cancellations, change fees, lost luggage, inconsistent service from gate agents and flight attendants, etc…   On the positive side, every once and a while a flight attendant or gate agent might be surprisingly pleasant or helpful, or you might get an unexpected upgrade, or something like that.  However, it’s difficult to have these small, infrequent positives ever outweigh the big, relatively consistent, negatives.   Other industries, like consumer banking, seem to be devoid of positive surprises with a smattering of negative surprises like late fees, transaction charges, etc…

Psychologist John Gottman has done some very interesting research on “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” that seems like it might apply to other long-term relationships.   Based on his analysis of 700 relationships, Gottman found that a central predictor in the success and failure of these relationships was the balance of positive and negative interactions.   These were the interactions where there was something surprising, however small.  These could be small expressions of love, humor, and small recognitions, as well as, negative surprises like sarcasm, annoyance, sniping, or complaints.  He found that there is magic ratio of 5 positive surprises to every 1 negative surprise.  If the positive-to-negative ratio dipped below 5 to 1, the relationship began to spiral downwards.  If the ratio of positive-to-negative surprise ratio rose above 5 to 1, the relationship became stronger.

I would suggest that a similar logic applies to customer relationships.  If you want to build higher levels of customer loyalty and get to the point that customers start generating positive word of mouth, I think creating a drumbeat of small positive surprises is important.  There are always going to be times when the customer has a negative surprise but having a balance of positive surprises should offset this.  I would also suggest that these positive surprises can’t be programmatic and predictable, otherwise they’re not surprises.  They also can’t be delivered in a way that becomes perceived by the customer as an entitlement.  This is how structured “loyalty programs” lose their effect over time.

Most of the design work that we do with our clients is focused on creating a concise set of “signature experience” elements that:  get the customers attention, reinforce the brand story, and are perceived by customers as a difference in kind (surprisingly different) rather than a difference in degree (better sameness).  

So, what’s the balance of positive to negative surprises you deliver to your customers?

3 Responses

  1. Hi Frank. Thanks for an interesting. For any of your readers interested in learning more about Net Promoter, we’d like to direct them to the official site: http://www.netpromoter.com. We also just published the Miami Net Promoter Conference blogs. There are a number of success stories at that link:

    http://netpromoter.typepad.com/npc_miami_2008/

  2. It sounds like you’re describing what some companies call “delight” and there’s been a book or two written on the subject. At the core of both “surprise” (which could be positive or negative, a great enhancement, btw) and “delight” (which would be positively valenced) is the notion that there is some expectation set and an event exceeds (or falls below) that expectation. A principle in sales suggests that you underpromise but overdeliver — presumably to take advantage of exceeding an expectation.

    The challenge for this effort is usually understanding where customer expectations are — and population heterogeneity makes this excruciatingly difficult. Also, customer expectations are both situational (flowers sent on Valentine’s Day are so much more expected than any other day of the year) and a moving target. Your last experience waiting for the rep to answer your call at your bank certainly sets the stage for how well that customer reacts to YOUR customer experience.

    I like how you related this thought to the idea of committment. There’s a larger body of work relating committment to preference and also the “stickiness” of the relationship. Imagine a two-by-two matrix. Along the vertical axis is whether you prefer a brand above others (high) or not (low). Along the horizontal axis is the pain you would experience from the loss of use of that brand (far right is high, far left is low). High preference and high pain puts you in the “Committed” quadrant. Conversely, low preference and low pain puts you in the Exiting quadrant. Moving customers around from the other two quadrants, Trapped (low preference, high pain) and Switcable (high preference, low pain) to the Committed quadrant requires either making their stickiness higher or having them prefer you more.

    What better way to do this than to “delight” or surprise your customer?

  3. […] where the customer relationship is actually solidified. For a more theoretical reference, see this post by Frank Capek on the importance of the “element of […]

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