A few years ago I flew from San Francisco to Rochester, New York, for a business meeting. I arrived at my hotel around eleven at night; my meeting was scheduled for early the next morning – and there’s the three-hour time difference. I dragged my suitcase to the front desk where the unnaturally chipper clerk announced that I’d been upgraded to the honeymoon suite. Surprise!

The honeymoon suite was a sight to behold: Two levels connected by a spiral staircase with a hot tub in the middle of the room. All I really needed was sleep and a shower, so the delight was lost on me. In fact, I felt a bit awkward and assumed the hotel had made a mistake.

Do customers like being surprised? I would say the answer is yes…and no. In fact, for the most part people like to know exactly what they’re buying. That certainly explains why every Amazon listing has photos taken from every angle as well as specs, dimensions, FAQs, and reviews. No surprises.

On the other hand, it’s always a nice surprise to get a gourmet chocolate on your hotel pillow – or is it? At some hotels it’s an expectation, not a surprise.

Surprise and delight

The appeal of a surprise depends on what it is. Many companies say they aim to surprise and delight their customers. Let’s start with the idea that a surprise is something you didn’t expect. So it’s got to be genuinely unique and delightful. But if your company offers special services or features that your competitor doesn’t, does it make sense to keep them secret? Why spring something on a customer after they’ve made the decision to purchase?

Have I been missing out?

One way even a delightful surprise can backfire is when the customer feels like they should have been getting special treatment all along. On a routine visit to the dental office, my hygienist offered me a warm neck wrap. That was indeed a delightful surprise. But I wondered why I’d never been offered one before. Then when I mentioned the experience to someone who uses the same dentist, he was surprised – because he’d never been offered a neck wrap.

What about me?

That brings me to another pitfall of surprises. If I hear from someone I know about special treatment they received, shouldn’t I expect the same for myself? And if I don’t get it, I guess I’d wonder what’s going on. The point is – delight me all you want, but keep the surprises to a minimum.

Predictable surprises

Still, customers might say they’re surprised – in a good way – by some aspect of your service. This probably means you’ve got one up on your competitor, because that’s their reference point. Why would you keep this news to yourself?

If you’re consistently delivering special features or stand-out service, that’s something worth talking about. The best way to get credit for all those special moments may be by capturing reviews and testimonials, but you shouldn’t be shy about promoting whatever it is that gives you the edge. Tell your story to the fullest!

Some say it’s better to “under promise and over deliver.” I get the over deliver part – you should always be pushing the envelope of customer delight. But if you under promise, you’re selling yourself short. And potentially giving your competitor an edge they don’t deserve.

Copyright 2020 Liz Behlke