In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery, playing reclusive writer William Forrester, advises a young friend that “the key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift, at an unexpected time”.  Forrester’s friend, Jamal, acts on the advice and it works wonders.

Here in the real world winning people over takes more than a single gesture, but with that said the occasional surprise can go a long way.  This applies not only to individual matters of the heart, but to businesses trying to build long-term, loyal customer relationships.

I recently experienced the power of the unexpected as a customer in both B2C and B2B settings. Below are the highlights from those experiences, as well as a look at why surprises work, and when and how to use them.

My B2C Experience: Free Chicken Sandwiches

This past week, my wife came home and couldn’t wait to tell me about picking up dinner for our boys at a local restaurant.  (Seriously).  She told me she’d ordered as usual, no surprises, but when she pulled up to pay at the window, the employee told her our boys’ chicken sandwiches were free.  It turned out the sandwiches were an unadvertised “mystery item” of the day and they were free whenever someone ordered one.

The result was impressive: This restaurant used the element of surprise to turn a typically mundane experience into something delightful and memorable.  Let’s face it, most of us don’t rush home to tell our significant others about ordering a drive-thru dinner!  That restaurant’s brand now has halo in our household and stands out from its competitors.

My B2B Experience: Dirt Cheap, Blazing WiFi

B2B customer relationships are often quite different from the kind of B2C consumer relationship described above.  Product giveaways may not be appropriate, allowed, or even effective.  But thoughtful gestures can be just as powerful.

Recently, our relationship manager at our IT support vendor told us “blazing WiFi is getting dirt cheap” and if we wanted, he could upgrade our WiFi when he was next at our office.  This was not a self-serving upsell on his part – it’s a low-cost, one-hour project – but he knew it would make life better at the office.  We’ll be able to take our laptops off their docking stations and they’ll automatically connect to a strong WiFi signal, freeing us up to work wherever we want.  Excellent!

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Why Surprises Work

Positive surprises work for at least a couple reasons.  First, getting an occasional, unexpected benefit like a free chicken sandwich in a drive-thru is an example of a variable reward, which can be more pleasurable and habit-forming than a predictable reward.  Marketers and product designers, especially in B2C markets, use variable rewards to drive repeat use of their products, from fantasy football to Facebook.  For more, see Nir Eyal’s provocative and eye opening work on manufacturing desire.

Second, and more applicable to forming long-term customer relationships, especially in B2B markets, is the fact that a good surprise requires a business to a) know its customers well enough to figure out what might surprise and delight them and b) proactively follow through.  What customers take away from the experience is the impression that “I matter. This company cares about my satisfaction and success”. It’s a positive, memorable experience, which recent research by Gallup suggests can create a deep, lasting level of customer engagement with your brand.

When to Use Them (and When Not to!)



Positive surprises are powerful, but can fall flat or backfire if used at the wrong time.  The diagram above shows that surprises work best when the quality of the customer experience already meets basic expectations.  And conversely, it shows that if basic expectations are not met, surprises will not be effective in improving the customer relationship.

For instance, if a vendor is late delivering vital parts for your operation, they likely won’t win you over by sharing an interesting idea for continuous improvement… in fact, there’s a good chance you’ll be frustrated that they’re spending time on anything other than solving the parts delay!

How to Do Them Well

While there are no formal standards on what surprises look like, trying keeping these best practices in mind when thinking about how to use them:

  • The act or gift must be relevant and meaningful to your customer. Getting this right is essential.  Great surprises aren’t just unexpected… they’re great because the nature of the act or gift that is given shows that the giver understands and hence cares about the recipient.
  • It must be sincere and not self-serving, and it must be perceived that way by your customer. If the person or company receiving the “surprise” gets the impression that its purpose is simply to get them to buy more from you, rather than a true act of goodwill with no strings attached, the surprise will likely erode rather than build customer trust and loyalty.
  • Encourage spontaneity in your front-line employees. Engaged employees who are empowered to do the right thing by your customers will often come up with great surprises spontaneously.  These are some of the best kinds of surprises and should be celebrated in your company when they happen.

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So, a thoughtful surprise can give your customer relationships a great boost.  Do you have customers who might benefit from receiving one soon?  I’d love to hear in the comments the best surprise you’ve ever given to a customer, or received?


Doug Fowler

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