The Art of Surprise

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Surprise!

On August 6, 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Sixth Sense debuted at the box office. The twenty nine year old writer/director/actor cast action superstar Bruce Willis as a child psychologist trying to help a troubled boy (Haley Joel Osment) who claimed to talk with dead people. The thriller riveted audiences with its surprise ending in which we find out that for most of the movie Willis was actually dead himself. In an age of recycled scripts and predictable plot lines, Shyamalan’s twists were a welcome change of pace.

Surprise is one of the six classic emotions that are universal across cultures. It is a neutral emotion that occurs when something happens that we do not expect. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Noble-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, describes how much of the time, our brains operate in an auto-pilot like state that he calls “System 1” thinking, which tends to be fast, automatic, emotional, stereotypical and subconscious. Surprise wakes us out of autopilot and we naturally revert toward “System 2” thinking, which is more slow, effortful, logical and calculating. Dr. Wolfram Schultz, a University of Cambridge Professor of Neuroscience, has discovered that surprise actually intensifies emotion up to 400%. In fact, Psychologist Barbara Mellers and her colleagues found that a surprising $9 win was more pleasurable than an expected $17 win.

Disney and Zappos are two companies that understand how surprise can affect the customer experience. At Disney, surprise comes in two varieties: “magical moments” and “take 5s.” Magical Moments are planned experiences that are designed to engage customers in a unique way. For instance, one family is chosen at random each morning to open the park and one of their children makes the official announcement. Take 5s are more spontaneous. It could be as simple as replacing a fallen ice cream cone for free or asking a little girl dressed as Cinderella for her autograph. In his book Creating Magic, Lee Cockerell, Former Executive Vice President of Operations at Walt Disney World Resort, describes the impact of these surprise encounters:

Most Take 5s take closer to five seconds than five minutes and from a business standpoint I can’t imagine a better use of time. All those seconds and minutes repeated thousands of times a day add up to better customer relations than you could buy with a big corporate PR budget.

Disney actively trains its employees in how to look for surprise moments and also holds them accountable for making them happen.

Zappos is another company that places a tremendous emphasis on the customer experience. At Zappos, surprise is all about “wowing people.” The company has gone to great lengths to do so from spending over 10 hours on a phone call with one customer to sending a bouquet of flowers to another customer who’s feet were numb due to a recent medical procedure. On Thanksgiving Eve last year, the company turned a baggage carrousel into a Wheel-of-Fortune like game and the year before, they paid the tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike so drivers could get home quicker.

I believe surprise is an essential component of customer service, but unfortunately, one that is quite rare among business. We’ve all had to spend hours telling the same story to multiple customer service agents whose “I understand” and “I’m sorry” statements seem anything but sincere. Why are customer service levels so low among businesses today? James Surowiecki, in a New Yorker article, describes the situation this way:

Customer service is a classic example of what businessmen call a ‘cost center’—a division that piles up expenses without bringing in revenue—and most companies see it as tangential to their core business, something they have to do rather than something they want to do. Although some unhappy customers complain, most don’t—one study suggests that only six per cent of dissatisfied customers file a complaint—and it’s tricky to quantify the impact of good service.

Michel Falcon, CEO of Falcon Consulting Group, agrees saying “I believe the #1 reason some CEO’s won’t invest in customer strategies to support their experience is because the ROI of amazing customer service can take time to come to surface.”

As long as companies see customer service as a necessarily evil, don’t expect any surprises. I believe service is not a business strategy to make more money, but rather one of the primary purposes of business. Companies who desire to create value holistically for all their stakeholders recognize the benefits of service, while those who bow to the altar of shareholder maximization see it as a means to an end.

Photo Credit: Tetsumo

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One Response

  1. Eden Chen
    | Reply

    think bruce willis was 44 in 1999…

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