Forget ‘surprise and delight’: ignoring defence will guarantee marketing failure

A fixation within marketing departments on creating ‘surprise and delight’ moments to the detriment of basic customer service is inherently dangerous, argues Sahil Merchant.  


The danger in ‘surprise and delight’

Marketers have long known that customer word of mouth is a more powerful advocacy tool than any company-generated messaging. The emergence of the term ‘surprise and delight’ is recognition that a strongly positive and unexpected experience will generate significant brand goodwill, which in turn will translate through to loyalty. It becomes even more persuasive when personalised to the individual customer level.

No one can argue that an unexpected positive customer experience harms your brand. However, a fixation on creating these moments is inherently dangerous for marketing departments.

All sporting aficionados know that great teams are built on defence. There is no sense in scoring heavily on one side only to leak more points on the other. You still lose.

‘Surprise and delight’ is like playing offense. It is the cherry on top, or in sporting terms, the kicking of the goal or scoring of the try. By definition it gains you points.

Yet, is it not a tad ludicrous to send someone a movie ticket for being a great customer when your damn product isn’t working and you can’t get anyone to come fix it? Is there any point in an auto dealership cleaning a car and leaving a new magazine matched to the driver’s interests on the seat after servicing, when they just denied that same driver a warranty claim two days after the expiration period?


‘Customer journey’ thinking and the need to merely ‘meet expectations’

The emerging ‘next best thing’ to become a focus around the boardroom table is the ‘end to end customer journey. Simply put, the journey is recognition that a customer’s interaction with a brand is not a series of one offs; it’s a connected and often non-linear path which can be mapped every step of the way, ultimately leading to an understanding of all the potential points of influence.

More than ever before, these customer journeys have focused attention on the experience customers have with products and services and just how important these are to overall brand perceptions. In other words, the wait time when on hold with the call centre or the fact that one even needed to call for help in the first place, is as important to how customers experience brands as a prime time TV commercial is.

The problem for marketing departments is they have traditionally been drawn by the sexy. Clever advertising, creative concepts, and getting into customers’ heads to be top of mind or first in reach are all players who sit firmly on the forward line. ‘Surprise and delight’ fits that mould.

However, it is impossible to knock it out of the park across every touch point. Nor will kicking goals at one touch point make up for disappointing customers across the wider network of touch points. Sometimes, merely ‘meeting expectations’ is the appropriate bar. Yet, this is boring and defensive.


Do customers really care about ‘surprise and delight’?

A growing body of research is indicating that ‘meeting expectations’ may in fact be a greater predictor of brand loyalty than the occasional strongly positive experience.

Do customers really want ‘surprise and delight’? Or do they simply want a product or service to meet a reasonable set of expectations they can rely upon, such as the ability to set up a home phone number under a business name when moving house without a need to speak to eight people and wait three weeks? No high-paid celebrity or cute animal can convince a punter that a brand deserves loyalty when the fundamentals are not met. You can always provide a surprise one-off additional data allowance, and while it will no doubt be gladly accepted, it won’t stop defection.


Why is this marketing’s problem?

Isn’t this a problem for operations, or customer service, or anyone else? Aren’t marketers meant to be glamorous types who kick the goals and leave the more mundane stuff to (yes) smart, but infinitely more boring people? The answer is – no longer.

With customer journey thinking taking hold, the driver of this new approach is often the CMO. This means looking at the manufacture of experiences across that journey, irrespective of whether pre- or post-purchase. If the CMO is the brand guardian and the brand is an aggregate of a set of experiences, marketing now needs to care about that whole gamut.

This means the script used by the call centre operator, the availability of self-help on the website, the need to switch channels when fixing a problem, or more broadly, the effort you create for the customer when dealing with your brand, all become a key area of focus for marketing.

They equally influence the wider network of experiences that customers will come to associate with your brand.

Some of these back line players may not sit within marketing in terms of skill execution. However, at the very least, marketing needs to become the defensive line coach.

Thanks to the emergence of customer journeys, only marketing has the holistic view of the customer playing field. Ignoring one half of it will guarantee failure.

Sahil Merchant
BY Sahil Merchant ON 8 October 2014
CEO of REDStrategy