"Surprise and delight" has become the mantra for customer experience. In fact, Wikipedia's definition of customer delight is "surprising a customer by exceeding his or her expectations and thus creating a positive emotional reaction." We believe -- no, we are certain -- that this is wrong.

Think about it: Why should doing a good job and meeting your customers' expectations be a surprise? If you're not meeting their expectations, what hope do you have of keeping them as customers and being able to rely on them for good word of mouth? And we all know the adage about how a happy customer will tell one person and an unhappy person will tell ten.

Burden Vs. Responsibility

You're probably thinking, "Oh, but nice surprises make customers feel good." No, surprises confuse customers, because they don't know what to expect going forward. The onus for delivering surprise falls on an individual employee; the responsibility for delivering delight should fall on the company. Your foundation for delight should be those things you can do repeatably, reliably, scalably, and profitably.

Case in point: The experience Patricia had recently with an airline. In sharp contrast to recent stories about air travel, an airline, unprompted, did an ostensibly nice thing for her. (This was before the United fiasco, the multi-day Delta delay, and American's Strollergate. We mention this so you don't think the airline in question or its employee were motivated by any recent bad press.)

Patricia had booked a basic, cheap, airfare that carried with it a $200 change fee. It was a business trip, so she felt pretty confident that her plans wouldn't change. Well, change they did, and the reason had nothing to do with extraordinary circumstances, such as an illness or a death in the family. She has no special status with this airline -- in fact, it is one she flies infrequently.

Expectations and Entitlement

She called to switch her flight and when speaking to the customer service rep, who said something along the lines of, "Oh, I think we can just get rid of that change fee for you." The ever-honest Patricia said, "You do understand that there is no family emergency, or illness?" The overly helpful agent said, "I think we can help you out this time."

Here's the problem. Patricia will now always be looking for that $200 "surprise," at least from that airline. That one customer service rep, who no doubt thought she was doing a nice thing, has reset Patricia's expectations. She now feels entitled to not having to pay $200 ever again. And when the airline is unable to meet these reset expectation in the future, she will be annoyed, unpleasantly surprised, and less likely to be loyal.

"Delight" might seem frivolous or inappropriate, depending on what you're offering, but it's not. You delight clients by designing and delivering delight on your terms, by fully meeting the expectations of customers.

The ability to offer an extra must be built into both your service model and your economic one, and the extras must make sense given the context in which they're offered. Had Patricia offered a sob story (true or not), it would have been more understandable.

Before Your Surprise....

Before you start surprising customers, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is it customers expect from me?
  2. Am I offering something extra because I can't deliver on my basics?
  3. Is anything extra I am offering something that I can do all, or at least most of the time?
  4. Do my employees know what the parameters are about giving freebies?
  5. Do I have a way of measuring how much is being given away and what it is costing the business?

Focus on delighting your customers -- whatever that means in the context of your business. Delight is a pretty powerful motivation for customers to return.

Published on: May 5, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.