Balancing surprise and simplicity for better customer experiences

Mar 27, 2015

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a series of recent articles from Lenati’s blog.

Of all the different approaches to customer experience (CX), there are two that seem to have come to the forefront in common discourse — we’ll call them "surprise and delight" and "effortless simplicity." While these are seen to be competing concepts, they are both valid depending on the customer’s context. This has led to a fair bit of confusion around how people speak about CX design.

First is the premise that customers should experience "surprise and delight" at every step of their journey. This sounds great at first (aiming to exceed the customer’s expectations seems like a good idea), but only if the customer’s basic needs are met.

In the book "The Experience Economy," authors Pine and Gilmore went so far as to propose using theater as a metaphor for "staging customer experiences" around a brand theme. Service interactions are highly scripted, retail spaces are stage sets, and service reps actors playing roles aligned to the theme. But attempting to make surprise and delight happen in the real world can be cumbersome and contrived, especially if the customer’s original mission hasn’t been completely fulfilled. Even if the customer is 100 percent satisfied, aiming to drive deep engagement at every point can be overwhelming for the customer, creating a brand perception that is fake, insincere and inauthentic.

"Effortless simplicity" is about reducing effort and time for the customer. Matthew Dixon & Co., authors of "The Effortless Experience," explain that most transactions (e.g., checking out of a hotel, booking an airline ticket or paying a parking fine online) are best improved by reducing the amount of interaction with the customer. According to their research, a customer service interaction is four times more likely to foster disloyalty than loyalty. The goal here should be to simply get out of the customer’s way and let them get on with their lives.

The approach you take should be dependent on the channels in question, the characteristics of your brand, and the expectations of your customer. For most transactions, especially those in digital channels, the less information the customer needs to provide, the lower the wait times, the fewer keystrokes, the better. But this should not always be the case, especially with in-person experiences. A premium purchase guided by the personal touch of a well-trained sales associate, the brief conversation with a barista, or the extra moment spent with a family doctor can all be worth that extra bit of time and effort.

In the practice of architecture, there is a saying: "If you can’t hide it, make it a feature." In other words, anything that is visible to the visitor needs to be meaningful, and everything else needs to disappear completely. The same can be said for CX: reduce the customer’s effort where you can. Everywhere else, align the experience to brand.

Do the “surprise and delight” and “effortless simplicity” approaches to retail customer experience complement or contradict one other? What advice would you have around maximizing each approach?

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16 Comments on "Balancing surprise and simplicity for better customer experiences"

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Bob Phibbs
It depends on what your definition, and the customer’s definition, of “delight” is. Am I delighted when I get half off from an untrained sales clerk? Yep. Would a customer be delighted if someone gave her a brand new Coach purse because the one she purchased three years ago’s handle broke after being pummeled in misuse? You bet. Would a customer with a higher loyalty status being able to cut in line ahead of those without points be delighted at the treatment? Of course. I’d bet the surprise that came about for those people would be effortless simplicity. But for everyone else in line, in accounting and in charge of profitability—not so much. How about having human beings on your sales floor who are interested, happy and able to meet another human being in front of them? Not having employees drawn to the tablet, smartphone or “to do” list that results in customers viewing the tops of employees heads? That would delight me. I think it goes off the rails when someone makes customer engagement too complicated. Let’s be clear. Retail isn’t theater. It’s retail. People are looking to buy something, to upgrade their own lives and to give them… Read more »
Nikki Baird

I do think they complement each other. Sometimes effortless simplicity is itself a surprise and delight. But I do agree that surprise and delight can be overwhelming, both to the customer and to the retailer trying to implement it. I think of it best served in very small, opportunistic doses. What you want is the look on Bruce Willis’ face in The Fifth Element when the he asks for a suit and the lady pulls out a whole rack. If you try for that with every interaction, then it no longer has that element of surprise. And it’s wearying.

The challenge with surprise and delight is the opportunistic side of things. If you’re relying on store associates to deliver surprise and delight, you need to be able to trust their judgement and also give them the discretion and the resources and support to pull it off. I see too many retailers where store labor is not structured to make that possible, and a future where that may become a real problem for them.

Ian Percy

A thoughtful article that deserves serious conversation.

Every theory sounds good in a book. The kind of “experience” Pine & Gilmore advocated 16 years ago was hot and fresh thinking at the time. Executive retreats with my favorite music programmed into my room, favorite snacks in the fridge, slippers in my size, etc. All very cool. Until it became obvious it wasn’t a viable economic model. Someone has to pay for all that “delight.” Wasn’t going to be me.

Here’s the key thing: “Surprise and delight” cannot be scripted or become a system. Why not? Because then it become an expectation or entitlement, the very thing that’s plaguing this entire country right now.

As I learned way back in experimental psychology training white rats to do stupid stuff, the rewards have to be erratic, spontaneous and unpredictable, always keeping you on the edge of your proverbial seat. Unfortunately that requires thinking, not policy. Staff who understand how this all works and who have the authority to surprise and delight customers in a timely and appropriate way will win their loyalty. It doesn’t take much.

Joan Treistman

I think Lenati’s description and qualifications are spot on. After all, if we’re trying to make an online purchase the extra landing page drives a wedge into the preference for “effortless simplicity” and we prefer to close the deal somewhere else, now and in the future.

On the other hand if we head into a retail context where we have flexibility, “surprise and delight” can tip the scales in favor of the retailer and customers.

As the article points out, planning for one or the other tactic requires understanding the context, customer needs and wants as well as our own capabilities with regard to simplicity and delight. This all seems logical to me.

Adrian Weidmann

The art and science of making a shopping experience effortlessly simple will in fact surprise and delight the shopper.

Shopper marketing is very similar to the art and science of architecture. Creating an elegant space that bonds emotionally with its visitors all the while being practical and utilitarian. The architectural guidance of “if you can’t hide it, make it a feature” is the same guidance when designing and activating a customer experience or shopper marketing initiative.

These two objectives are in fact complementary yet in practice they are implemented independently and seemingly in conflict with one another. Making a shopper experience seamless and transparent is often quite difficult not only to design but maintain over time. Not everyone can simply be a Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry or I.M. Pei of shopper experience.

Ken Lonyai

The two approaches done well can absolutely complement each other. In fact, part of the surprise and delight when Apple stores first debuted was the simplicity of checkout, with no trip to the cashier.

Making discovery easy seems like a natural pairing so there really is no reason to look at these approaches as separate entities. It comes down to TRULY experiencing a store from the customer’s perspective in view of their needs and reason for being there, without viewing them as fodder for up-selling or cross-selling, and these “two approaches” can come together harmoniously as a valuable and meaningful shopper experience.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

In far too many retail stores, the “surprise and delight” would be experiencing “simplicity.” If the question is either/or, most consumers vote for effortless simplicity.

There is nothing wrong with either of these two approaches IF they are integrated into the natural shopping journey. If surprise and delight are forced, the consumer quickly senses insincerity.

But there is a third component that is perhaps even more important and more highly valued by the consumer: Personalized solutions.

With almost unlimited choices available on the web, consumers are looking for assistance in helping them to buy what is right for them—a personal solution that works for their lifestyle.

A personalized solution with effortless simplicity = customer experience nirvana.

Marc Millstein
Marc Millstein
2 years 6 months ago

The best customer experiences—with some notable exceptions of course—involve a well-honed combination of both. Many retailers doing well embrace effortless simplicity. But unless they are a big box, no-frills, truly low-cost provider, these retailers also provide, or should provide, some elegance and surprise. A special touch that extends the brand making it a bit more personal, and yes, provides a surprise, but one in keeping with the store image and experience. I do not see surprise and simplicity as 100 percent contradictory. Best is a well thought out mixture of the two approaches. One will dominate but both are needed.

Cathy Hotka

The key part of this column is the observation that transactions should be simple. If associates can assist with choosing merchandise and then affect a transaction easily, that’s a win for everyone. And retailers are taking all kinds of different approaches to figuring it out.

Ralph Jacobson

I think innovative merchants execute on both seamlessly. It’s not like this never happens today. Think about the global electronics retailer that surprises and delights the shopper with clean, open stores with plenty of products to test drive. New items are right there to try out. Then a staff member rings up your purchase with a mobile devices and emails you the receipt. Is this not fabulous?

Vahe Katros
If you look at designing experiences from a functional perspective, you break down the shopper’s journey into activities like where do I park, how will I find my car, where is the department, how can I try this on, what are my options, is this popular, will this go with the things in my closet, is it compatible, what if it doesn’t fit, what are my options to pay, etc. If you look at each of these moments from a design perspective to remove pain and friction and make the world bigger or kinder—and you can do it economically and tastefully and simply—then you might evoke comments like “Wow, that’s so cool, I always thought that was the way it should be done!” or “I love you, I love you, now I don’t have to worry, thank you, I am going to tell everyone about this!” So let’s forget for a moment, being creative from a functional perspective, let’s just do surprise and delight. “This skating rink is so cool, this fountain is so cool, that Santa is so cool….” Each of these speak to entertainment and not so much function. I suppose you could have a Santa app, or have a hugely efficient skating… Read more »
Lee Kent

The idea behind customer experience is to understand the customer’s journey and meet them along the way. Providing them with whatever they need and/or expect seamlessly that will keep them on the path to a successful conclusion.

This does not mean surprise and delight at every step. It means understanding every touchpoint along the journey and what each touchpoint means/provides for the customer. Sometimes what the customer wants is to simply find the product. Offer a kiosk and they are off to the next step. Get it?

And that’s my 2 cents.

Bill Davis

Personally, I am a huge fan of simplicity, but surprise and delight can often be an outcome of simplicity, so I am inclined to say complementary.

Shep Hyken
Effortless simplicity is a great goal. I ask my clients, “How easy are you to do business with?” Obviously, the easier the better. Just how easy can it get? I recently wrote about predictive consumption, where the retailer can predict when the customer will need what they sell and have it just show up on time, every time. For example, just the right amount of dog food shows up on the customer’s doorstep at the beginning of each month. Or air conditioner filters are sent to the customer every six months. Basically, the customer doesn’t lift a finger. The shopping experience is reduced to signing up for the service. So, how do you “surprise and delight” when there is virtually no interaction with a customer in the effortless model just mentioned? Sometimes just the fact that the system works is enough to surprise and delight. However, I’ve always argued that a human touch should be made to build a relationship that is based on more than merchandise and pricing. It can be a simple as a phone call from the store. Bottom line is that if you try to create effortless simplicity, there needs to be some balance that includes… Read more »
Kai Clarke

Brand alignment for customer service is a common goal. The labels that the author uses of suprise and delight (don’t know many customers who align themselves with this statement when shopping), and effortless simplicity, seem to be more market mumbo jumbo, rather than verifiable rules of the retail experience. Comparing this to architecture, is nothing short of a far reach in anyone’s book….

Jim Rothfork
Jim Rothfork
2 years 6 months ago

Building in surprise at every stage of the process isn’t simple, and as many have commented, it negates the warm and tingly feeling we get when we’re “surprised.”

“Surprise and delight” and “effortless simplicity” should absolutely complement one another. It’s easy to fall into the trap of considering your customers more as numbers or statistics weighing down or boosting your conversion rate. When you operate that way it pits “surprise and delight” and “effortless simplicity” against one another. You’re constantly focusing on how to improve your statistics or profit, and suddenly people become nothing more than numbers.

We think of things this way: Pretend each and every customer (or potential customer) is a personal friend. How would you treat a friend were they buying from you? What would the experience look like then?

When we think of things that way the two philosophies aren’t at odds, and it becomes easier to build in the easy “surprise.” Include an extra note, a free complimentary product to something people have purchased, follow-up with people on those purchases, etc.


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