the ceo magazine, customer experience,
Chip R. Bell, Author, Kaleidoscope:  Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles

As grandparents, my wife and I are in the middle of brainstorming cool presents for our three granddaughters.  Over the Thanksgiving holidays, we asked them for suggestions.  The 10 and 12 year olds took a clipboard and made a list, complete with brand names and model numbers.  But, the 8 year old took a completely different approach.  On the clipboard under her name she wrote, “Just surprise me!”

Customer service for many years had more than its share of surprises.  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 in such a scarcity?  Some of its dearth can be blamed on expense cutting in the face of ever-challenging profit margins.  Rising customer expectations can be another culprit.  After a great experience with Amazon, Nordstrom, Disney or Bubba’s Bait shop, our criteria for an A+ in service gets raised for every other service provider.  But, one subtle perpetrator of surprise theft is organizational leadership’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 and 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 frugalness, 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 customer 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 that is made is so plain vanilla it is only a fleeting memory at best; certainly not one a customer might tweet about.

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 guest 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.  If upgraded, there is no returning to the friendly gate attendant for a new boarding pass.  The passenger simply boards with first class passengers and the computer issues a seat assignment.  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.

Today’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 resulting in customers who feel enchanted and eager to tell others.

On Christmas morning when my three granddaughters open their presents from us, the two older girls will likely say, “Oh, thanks, you remembered.”  We’ll get a hug and they will be so happy their “catalog order” arrived.  But, the younger one will have a completely different reaction.  We took her “surprise” request seriously.  She will squeal, show her parents, and then run tell her neighborhood friends.  Not, because her gift was more over-the-top than the others.  But, because it was a surprise gift, not order fulfillment.  Exactly like your customers.

About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books.  His newest book, Kaleidoscope:  Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles will be released in February 2017.  He can be reached at


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