Why 'Surprise and Delight' Needs a Warning Label

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The mantra to "surprise and delight" customers has become ingrained in business thinking, but could this strategy hurt businesses in the long run? Have businesses done too good a job at training customers to always expect more?

The mantra to "surprise and delight" customers has become ingrained in business thinking, but could this strategy hurt businesses in the long run? Have businesses done too good a job at training customers to always expect more? These questions are increasingly relevant in a world where technology has commoditized products and services and companies must work harder to differentiate themselves. Technology has disrupted business in "two waves," observed Brad Rencher, Adobe EVP and GM of digital marketing, at the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit in Las Vegas last week.

The first wave began with the digitization of the back office, such as being able to seamlessly connect orders with fulfillments. This led to the second wave: the digitization of the front office where companies are using customer relationship management technology to optimize leads and close more sales.

Now, thanks to high customer expectations, organizations are entering what Rencher called the "third wave" of enterprise transformation: the experience economy, using technology to surprise and delight customers with contextual interactions.

"This wave is about goosebumps, it's about smiles, it's about bringing people closer together," Rencher said on stage. "It's about doing our jobs so well that consumers don't even know that you and I exist." And in an experience-driven economy, he added, "we must surprise and delight our customers at every touchpoint."

However, there's no guarantee that consistently providing over-the-top experiences will earn a customer's loyalty. As a Harvard Business Review article pointed out, "Loyalty has a lot more to do with how well companies deliver on their basic, even plain-vanilla promises than on how dazzling the service experience might be. Yet most companies have failed to realize this and pay dearly in terms of wasted investments and lost customers."

At the same time, technology can enable businesses to provide meaningful experiences in a scalable manner, maintained Scott Mager, principal at Deloitte Digital.

"Surprising and delighting your customers can mean different things--it doesn't necessarily mean going overboard to impress them," Mager told me. "For example, a few hours before a flight I got a message from Virgin America's app reminding me to bring an umbrella because it's raining at my destination. I was pleasantly surprised and it was just something that someone added to the rules engine."

So, while companies should strive to provide customers with excellent experiences whenever possible, don't fall into an arms race of trying to make each experience extraordinary. A brand can be a hero in a customer's eyes simply by being dependable and efficient.

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