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Ideas. Insights. Inspiration.

How to "Surprise and Delight"...

"Happy Birthday, your drink's on us today!"

When I was a Starbucks Partner (employee), I learned the phrase, "Surprise and Delight" early on in my training: I was told that when an opportunity appeared to do something nice for a consumer, I should feel free to do it.

For example, partners who discovered during a casual cash-register chat that it was a customer's birthday could opt to make the drink order complimentary, or perhaps offer to include a free dessert with the beverage. (This was long before the Starbucks Rewards loyalty program existed, where "free drinks on your birthday" is an included perk.) Because the customer wouldn't have been expecting the gesture, they're likely to be delighted by the service received, generating both goodwill and positive word-of-mouth for Starbucks. Brilliant! And simple, right?

Except it isn't simple.

In real life, "surprise and delight" can actually be really difficult to accomplish. You need to empower your team to spend company money trying to WOW a customer. And I mean really empower them, which means you also need to accept that there will be times when good-intentioned employees spend too much or too often, and let it go without any disciplinary action whatsoever. (Because if you discipline a good-intentioned employee for spending inappropriately, good luck getting anyone else to try.)

And even when you have empowered employees and enlightened policy guidelines to support them, you'll still have one last hurdle: actually surprising the customer. Because the first time you give me a free dessert on my birthday, I'm surprised and delighted... but every year after that, I'm going to expect one. Worse, if I don't get one next year, I'm now surprised and disappointed... and I'm probably going to tweet about it.

"Surprise and delight" happens when you meet all customer expectations... then go one step further.

I once called Condé Nast (the publisher) about an issue of Wired magazine I hadn't received the previous month. Here's what the conversation sounded like:

Me: "Hi, I'm just calling to let you know I didn't get last month's copy of Wired magazine. I can still access the content digitally, but I didn't receive the actual paper copy. Would you be able to credit my account for one month?

Customer Service Representative: "Sir, I'm really very sorry you didn't get that issue, and we're going to take care of this for you. For your inconvenience, I'm going to credit your account for two months, and I'm going to mail you that back-issue right away."

I had expected one month's credit for a missing issue. Rather than argue with me like many companies would choose to do, the company's representative instead pro-actively offered me a sincere apology, two months of credit on my subscription, and a replacement of the missing issue. Condé Nast is an organization that understands the meaning and merits of "Surprise and Delight".

People can surprise and delight too.

I once had the pleasure of briefly meeting marketing guru Seth Godin. He was a keynote speaker at a conference I was attending, and the conference promoted the fact that there would be a book signing following his presentation. I had been a big fan of his writing for several years at that point, so right after his presentation ended, I rushed out of the room to purchase the books he had written that I didn't yet own, and got in line to have him sign all of them.

When it was my turn to approach the signing table, Seth noticed my name tag: it included both my name and my employer at the time... Starbucks. As he started to sign a book, he made a positive comment about the company and we had a very brief chat. And in a flash, it was over, and I left.

Later that evening when I got home, I realized that Seth had only signed one of the books I had bought... and I had bought five or six of them at "conference-convenience" pricing with the sole purpose of having him sign them. But the moment was passed, so what could I do?

Since Seth makes his contact information available online, I decided to write him a quick email. In it, I explained how much I had enjoyed meeting him, but that I was disappointed only one of my books had been autographed. Seth returned my email not long after, and in his reply, he apologized and asked me for my mailing address. He didn't tell me why he wanted my address, but since I was curious, I complied and sent him one last email.

The next week a huge box was delivered to my home. In it were a dozen of Seth Godin's books (including one foreign language book I'm fairly certain had never appeared in any Canadian bookstores) and a limited edition Seth Godin Action Figure. And every item in the box was personally autographed. On the inside of the first book I picked up was scrawled, "Sorry David. Seth Godin." In the second book, "Really sorry David. Seth Godin." And on it went. Seth Godin surprised me by turning what could have been a negative experience into something I'm still telling people about more than ten years later.

Opportunities to surprise and delight are everywhere if you're motivated enough to look for them.

If a customer takes the time to speak with a restaurant manager about the great service they received? Offer them a sincere thank you for providing feedback and a complimentary dessert for their effort.

If a hotel guest completes a comment card and notes how comfortable the bathrobes were? Ship a new one over to their home address with a personal note: "Thank you for staying with us. Here's a little something to remind you of your visit until the next time we see you."

If an airline accidentally misplaces a bag? Don't just find it, deliver it to the customer's hotel (or home), then offer a sincere apology and a pair of round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world. When you really screw up, a thank you will go a long way... but a thank you and an over-the-top apology gift will go even further.

If your partner looks like they're having a bad day, surprise them with their favourite latte or a bouquet of flowers... for no reason other than to show them you care. (Once again, people can "Surprise and Delight" too!)

There's not enough WOW in the world.

What can you do to change that?

* This article is only slightly modified from a version of it I published over six years ago on a different blog... and then again a year after that on LinkedIn. But since the message is still extremely relevant today -- perhaps more so than ever -- I thought it was worth revisiting.


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