The best brands understand that when it comes to offering a product or service, delivering competently on the basics is just the cost of entry: It’s necessary but not sufficient.

Customers have higher expectations. They’re looking for something that makes your company stand out as a little bit above average. In b-school vocabulary, these are called “customer touchpoints,” and if done poorly they can send potential buyers fleeing to other brands.

Consider cell phone companies, for example. While consumers care about prices and number of minutes in their plans, the quality of connections and service, and the phone models available, it turns out that it’s things like unclear billing statements and surprise hidden fees that can drive consumers away from their carriers. 

Or consider the neighborhood coffee shop. In my neighborhood, the shops that do the most business aren’t the ones that serve the best or the cheapest coffee, it’s those that provide Wi-Fi, ample space, good lighting, and allow you to stay, unrushed. 

Even gas stations have critical customer touchpoints. When I drove cross-country a number of years ago, I wound up refilling most often at Irving, a midwestern chain I had previously never heard of.  Their tagline: Really, Really Clean Restrooms.  In a category as commoditized as gas stations, the consistent cleanliness of a restroom (the need for which drives people to stop), can easily be the tipping factor when customers must make a choice. It’s not a benefit that’s costly to offer, yet most gas stations overlook its importance.

What follows are examples of customer touchpoints I have observed that I think are clever or obvious, yet few category competitors have done well.  In addition to surprising and delighting customers, these unexpected product benefits make brands more “buzzworthy.”  When you surprise and delight customers, they are more likely to pass on favorable word of mouth. 

  • Financier.  A coffee and pastry shop in New York City that gives a free mini chocolate or plain almond “financier” (a cake-like pastry, similar to the French Madeleine), with each cup of coffee
  • Panera Bread: In addition to providing free wireless, Panera posts the time each self-serve pot of coffee is brewed, so you know just how fresh it is.
  • IKEA: Smaland, also known as “the ball room” enables parents to shop undistracted by offering in-store supervision for kids (if they are potty trained); the restaurant has a microwave oven for bottle warming for parents with infants, one of their key demographic targets; buses between Manhattan and the northern New Jersey store enable city dwellers who don’t have a car to transport their purchases; and inexpensive meals provide good value for the money and encourage families to make shopping at IKEA an unrushed outing. All of it reinforces IKEA’s good price value perception and increases the likelihood that people will stay longer and hence buy more in the store.
  • Ernest & Olivia: This Manhattan barber shop and salon has an old-fashioned feel to it. As such, the décor is vintage with portraits of Ernest Hemingway and Shackleton on the walls. Customers can get a free cappuccino or cocktail, play backgammon (or watch ESPN SportsCenter, if they must) while they wait, and men can get a hot towel and straight-razor shave just like their grandfathers used to.

The lesson here? All businesses, whether big or small, should go to the trouble of learning those little things that customers value above and beyond the basic product or service. If you don’t already, you should find out what causes your customers to be dissatisfied and try other brands. How do they make their choices when they buy?

You can learn this a number of different ways:

  • One-on-one interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Quantitative surveys
  • “Listening” to online conversations on Twitter, Yelp, and relevant blogs
  • Purchasing and experiencing competitors’ products and services first hand
  • Benchmarking other relevant industries to glean ideas

Once you have this essential basic knowledge, brainstorm all the ways in which you can surprise and delight customers. Then test them to see how big an impact they make.

If it doesn’t get your customers talking, it probably isn’t worth doing.