Where Did All the Surprises Go?

easter egg huntWhen I was ten years old, I did a very naughty thing on Easter. I secretly watched my parents hide the eggs. As my cousins and siblings rushed into our backyard on the hunt, I calmly went straight to all their hiding spots! I “found” a lot more eggs! But, they had a lot more fun. They squealed and grinned when they found an Easter egg; I was far less enthused.

Customer service for many years had more than its share of “squeals and grins.” My hometown grocer would give my brother, sister and me a free fireball when my parents were there to buy groceries. Fireballs were a super popular hard candy. It was not that long ago the mechanic would repair something he spotted defective when my car was on the rack and fix it without a fee. Today, such generous, unexpected behavior is rare.

What has made customer surprise such a scarcity? Some of its dearth can be blamed on expense-cutting in the face of ever-diminishing profit margins. Rising customer expectations can be another culprit. After a great experience with Amazon, Nordstrom, Disney or Jerry’s Bait and Tackle, an A+ in service gets raised for every service provider.

But, one subtle perpetrator of surprise theft is an organization’s insistence on applying production thinking to customer experience.

Let’s take a quick look at how making stuff and making memories are substantively different! When you buy a product, you receive an object; when you buy a service, you get an outcome and an experience surrounding that outcome.

Unlike products, a service cannot be inventoried but is created new each time—therefore, no economies of scale for mass production exist and there is no stockpiling for a quick response to unexpected demand. The manufacturer controls the quality of product-making and the processes that yield efficiency, not the buyer. Customers don’t show up at the factory to help. The reverse is true for service—the buyer judges the quality of memory making.

Since the product-buyer is not a participant in product making, the manufacturer’s focus is largely on the efficiency of internal processes. With service, however, the buyer participates in creating the service experience with the service provider. Consequently, the focus must be on the quality of the relationship with the co-creator—the customer. And, in the end, the receiver of a service owns nothing tangible—thus the value of the service depends solely on a satisfactory outcome plus a positively memorable experience.

However, there is an even deeper dimension to the product-service difference. The core property of a product is form; the core property of a service is feeling or emotion. Just as uniformity is a virtue of a product, so uniqueness is a virtue of a service. Six sigma black belts taught the world to eliminate variance in processes so that manufacturing could yield greater productivity and therefore higher revenue.

The service paradigm, while honoring efficiency and frugality, recognizes the criticality of the human dimension and thus focuses on empowered employees able to adjust, adapt and custom-fit service experiences to match the unique requirements of customers.

So, what happens when you apply production thinking and variance eliminating to the delivery of service experiences? Especially since the very nature of surprise is variance. The most obvious examples are phone scripts. Remember, “Thank you for shopping at J-Mart, next?” or “Would you like fries with that?”

Rather than rely on a consistent pattern—always warmly greet, put a smile in your voice, thank the customer—some organizations require a precise script. Unless the call center operator is a world-class thespian, the customer experiences robotics instead of authenticity. The memory made is so plain vanilla it is no memory at all.

Application of affinity programs is another way the management of processes now trumps the leadership of frontline ambassadors. There was a time the front desk clerk or gate attendant made decisions on room or seat upgrades. Now, the computer, with its programmed rule-based fairness, makes the upgrade decision. In fact, in the airport, frequent flyers watch the board to see if they received an upgrade—there is no connection with a person. Consequently, the formerly surprised guest or passenger is today non-plused by the dull procedurally-driven event and the hotel or airline’s quest for customer advocacy is completely lost.

principles-2bToday’s customers expect experiences to be sparkly and glittery with a cherry on top.

Meeting the challenge of rising expectations requires rethinking the role of those employees who are face-to-face, ear-to-ear and click-to-click with customers. When service people are asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies. It means leaders trusting front-line employees to create not just execute. The more they are resourced and freed to be generous and ingenious, the more they bring their high esteem to the service provider-customer co-creation, the more the customers will feel enchanted and eager to tell others.


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Dr. Chip R. Bell is a world-renowned authority on customer loyalty and innovative service. Global Gurus ranked him in 2018 the #2 keynote speaker in the world on customer service; #1 in North America. He also is the author of numerous national and international best-selling books including Take Their Breath Away, Managing Knock Your Socks off Service, Magnetic Service, The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service and Customers as Partners. His books have been translated into over a dozen languages.

His newest customer service book is the award-winning, best-selling book Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles.

Dr. Bell has appeared live on CNBC, Bloomberg TV, CNN, Fox Business, ABC, CBS, NPR Marketplace and his work has been featured in Fortune, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Forbes, Businessweek, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, and Fast Company.


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