At 19 years old, I was working my first "real" job, in an airline's call center. Remember that person you vented to about your delayed flight? Yeah--that was me. 

We all had horror stories of angry customers (someone once yelled so loudly the girl sitting next to me could hear it through both our headsets). 

So it would have been easy to let this be an excuse to be grumpy and short with everyone calling in. (After all, they were calling my department because something went wrong.) Instead, I made it my personal mission to ensure every person on the phone was happier at the end of the call than the beginning. 

I still remember one man who called in absolutely furious about his flight delay and demanding a free ticket (a very common request). After listening to his ordeal I responded, "That does sound frustrating, and I'm so sorry for your experience. The book says I'm only supposed to give $50 for a four hour delay, but I can tell this really impacted you and would like to give you $75--would that be ok?"

After that it was like talking to a completely different person! Once I reframed the solution, he was kind and appreciative and incredibly thankful for his $75 travel credit. 

Profits, Loyalty, Surprise and Delight

It turns out, my mission for making people happier is actually a foundation of successful companies. In the 2005 paper, How To Delight Your Customers, Barry Berman shared that loyalty has a significant impact on a company's profits. And, it turns out that delighted customers are much more likely to be loyal than those who are merely satisfied. 

The big difference between satisfaction and delight? Surprise.

Satisfaction is based on expectations. Delight, on the other hand, is only generated when the customer is positively surprised by an interaction. Research into the brain has shown us that this is likely due to the link of emotion on memory--and surprise is more likely to trigger emotions. 

Often these surprises come directly from employees. For example, the when a Starbucks barista made the effort to learn sign language so she could better communicate to one of her customers. Or when a conference attendee was given a complimentary alarm clock after being unable to purchase the one she found in her hotel room.

Getting outside of expectations and into the realm of surprise is key to delighting customers, and as you can see it doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, Berman's paper noted that courtesy of employees and their willingness to go "above and beyond" (like my airline story) were often the difference between satisfaction and delight.

How to Do This Yourself

So, your business should focus on finding ways to positively surprise customers that will get them excited enough to want to share (which has been made much easier by social media). And the great news is, finding ways to delight customers can create a fantastic culture of happy employees and interactions. Sounds like a win-win in my book.

A few last tips when creating a delight culture: 

  • Know your numbers--don't make your delights so expensive they aren't profitable.
  • Don't delight in the same way, or delight every time, because you will lose the surprise element and just increase expectations (again, making the whole thing less profitable).
  • Get into the customer's mindset--expectations for one person may be a surprising delight for another based on their experience with you.
  • Remember, it doesn't have to be gigantic or expensive. One of the most commonly cited items that triggered delight was courtesy by employees and their willingness to go above and beyond to help.

Most importantly, have fun with it! This is about delight, after all. If you aren't sure where to start, I ask you this: What would make you happy? How could someone make you smile unexpectedly? Is there a way to replicate that for the next customer you interact with?

Published on: Aug 13, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.