Sustainable Surprise

Someone once told me: “If I give my clients the very best, I’ll train them to expect the best, and I don’t want to spoil them.”

While this sentiment gives me the heebeegeebees, I get it. I’ve also heard it time after time in the context of relationships: “If I keep giving him/her better and better gifts, I’m going to go broke and/or run out of ideas.” And in many ways, it’s true. If you perpetually raise the bar, it becomes progressively more likely that you’ll disappoint people.

So should we ditch our surprise and delight efforts all together? No! Please, please, no! I promise to make this a bit easier by helping you create a Sustainable Surprise Strategy. But first:

Why Should You Care About Surprise?
Research consistently demonstrates that delight and positive surprise are highly correlated with customers’ willingness to repurchase, recommend, and spread positive word of mouth. And on the relationship front: surprises boost our dopamine levels, which increases attraction and excitement. They also make us feel appreciated. Plus, eliminating negative surprise may be even more important than adding positive surprise since bad events make a bigger impact on us than the good ones.

How Much Surprise is Enough?
Before setting out to craft your Sustainable Surprise Strategy, it’s helpful to understand that not all surprise is created equal. Take a look at the chart below to see what I mean. If you think of “the bar” as people’s expectations and anything above or below the bar as surprise, you’ll see that different degrees of surprise produce very different emotions and behaviors. This is written from the standpoint of a product or service, but you can also apply it to just about any kind of relationship.

So How Do You Make Surprise Sustainable?

Step one: Eliminate the negative surprises as much as humanly possible. Across the board, begin with meeting people’s expectations.

Step two: There are three secret ingredients here:
A. Figure out opportunities for meaningful delight. A chocolate on my pillow is nice, but will it really keep me coming back for more? What low expectations can you surpass for the biggest pay off?
B. Once you’ve committed to these delights, keep them consistent
C. But also varied. Think of the psychology of fortune cookies – we expect that they’ll have a slip of wisdom inside, but we’re still perpetually delighted by them because the contents of the cookie is always different. Fellow Surprisologist LeeAnn has another example: her favorite hotel has wonderfully cushy robes in wild animal prints. Even though she’s learned to expect the robes, the prints are always different, and she’s always looking forward to the next one she gets.

Step three: Make the VERY surprising events obviously random. For example, if you send a freebee along with someone’s order, make it clear that it’s a thank you from you. Taking your significant other out on a fancy date? Mention that you “wanted to do something special” if you’re worried about setting future expectations too high. Take advantage of the psychology of slot machines – random reinforcement is the most addicting!

Summary: Cut out the negative surprises, make critical moments delightful and consistent but varied, and add in big positive surprises randomly.

What are the elements of your Surprise Strategy?

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