Orchestrating surprise and delight strategies to evoke positive emotions


Image: Ben White, Unsplash

Surprise and delight are commonly used terms within the realm of customer experience strategising. As simple as these two words may seem, there lies a complexity regarding their relation to the customer experience. This article delves into these words looking at their relation to a customer experience strategy. 

This article will provide insight into what a surprise and delight strategy is, identifying essential considerations and eventual pitfalls that businesses should be aware of concerning the customer experience strategy.

In an ever-increasing world of intense competition and increasing customer expectations, customer experience has become more vital to business success than ever before. Leaders must seek new ways to delight customers and ultimately achieve an emotional bond, securing reoccurring spending and advocacy.

This is where a surprise and delight strategy may do wonders, but what does a surprise and delight strategy imply? 

According to an article written by Shep Hyken (customer think), a surprise and delight strategy means “to surprise the customer with a level of experience that they were not expecting”. At first glance, this may seem to be a fabulous idea, but it poses some challenges; does the customer want the unexpected? How do we know that the unexpected will evoke a positive emotion in contrast to a negative emotion? Furthermore, how can a business maintain a consistently delightful experience when surprises are to be sustained? 

To understand how a surprise and delight strategy contributes to the customer experience, I will now break down the comprising elements; Customer experience, surprise & delight and strategy and explore their relationship to a customer’s experience.

Customer experience

Although there are many explanations of the customer experience, I believe that the CX Academy definition does it justice “the customer experience is how a customer feels due to every interaction they have with a company”. According to Berkley University, 27 different emotional states exist; the emotion surprise being one of these (Cowen & Keltner, 2017). Consequently, we must assume that a surprise and delight strategy should be focusing on evoking the emotion of surprise, but will surprise end in delight? 

Surprise and delight

According to (Ekman and Friesen, 1975; Vanhamme, 2008) (Mattila, 2013), “Surprise arises when a person encounters an unexpected element; hence, he or she experiences a discrepancy in his/her schema”—simplified an experience out of the ordinary. 

The fascinating thing about surprise is that it is, in fact, a neutral emotion but acts “as an amplifier of the emotion that follows it” (Westbrook and Oliver, 1991) (Mattila, 2013), meaning that depending on other connected emotional drivers the feeling of surprise could either result in a positive or negative one. 

Today, we know that feelings play an integral part in the customer experience and, ultimately, buying decisions. According to cognitive neurologists, 90 to 95% (Mahoney, 2003) of all decisions are formed on an unconscious emotional level. What significance will this have toward a surprise and delight strategy? 

Firstly, this signifies that customers make the majority of their decisions using minimal rational thinking. They simplify decision processes by establishing simple rules, known as heuristics. Heuristics help achieve goals without complicated thinking processes, and prime goals simplify secure safety and mitigate risk. With regards to surprise, this suggests that a surprise may, if not handled correctly, in fact, disturb safety, leaving the customer feeling emotionally confused or anxious and certainly not delighted. 

Secondly, it will be essential to understand that customers’ buying decisions and experiences are emotional. If the emotion Surprise evokes a negative emotion, this may drive the customer away, while a positively evoked surprise will delight and keep the customer returning. 

So how can we ensure that we evoke a positive emotion through surprise?


Perhaps the answer lies in a solid framework to base the strategy on?

The CX Academy framework-a framework based on thousands of interviews with customers, forms a solid base for CX understanding, strategising, and designing the customer experience. 

The CX Academy identified six significant emotional drivers and one key outcome. I wish to introduce these drivers, presenting some useful insights, considerations and pitfalls concerning a surprise and delight strategy. 

I trust you, driver

This means that customers will create bonds with companies they trust and tells us that customers do not want to do business with companies they do not trust. If a company uses this driver in strategising, they will look for ways to form trust between themselves and their customers. Being reliable is a fundamental element of trust-building. Reliability is about showing up as expected time and time again, suggesting that bringing surprise elements into the customers’ journey may not work well. 

You know me, driver

This driver refers to that customers need businesses to know something about them—the more known about them, the better businesses can design and deliver the desired customer experience. Let us see how the emotion of surprise fits in here. By evoking a positive surprise emotion, we can please the customer. However, customers value reliability. Perhaps there are moments of interaction that reliability is more valued than others? Perhaps there are also moments that a customer may appreciate an element of surprise? The only way we will know this is if we know who our customers are. The – You know me, the driver is about investing time in learning who your customers are and identifying their needs during different stages of their journey.  

You make it easy, driver – This driver urges businesses and organisations to look for ways to make it as easy as possible to do business with them. The surprise is unexpected, and when something unexpected happens, people tend to search for an explanation (Weiner, 2000) (Mattila, 2013). Unexpected events may cause chaos in the customer emotions, leaving them responding “that was not meant to happen” and “I was not expecting that!” sending the customer into a frenzy to understand why it happened, in turn causing the situation to be complicated. 

You get me, driver

This driver is about empathising with customers and being emotionally in tune with their feelings. To recap so far, customers value reliability, the You know me driver may help identify where reliability is most significant and where customers may be more susceptible to an element of surprise. However, there is still a need to understand how the surprise emotion can be, in fact, delightful? The CX Academy suggests that through exercising the You get me, driver, businesses will be able to invest time in really understanding their customers not only on a functional level but on an emotional level. By asking, listening and empathising with the customer, companies will be able to get a better understanding of what a delightful surprise should look and feel like.

You deliver on your promise driver

The next driver is the You deliver on your promise driver – This is about doing what you said you were going to do. Potentially, the most significant consideration factor regarding a surprise and delight strategy. The CX Academy says, “It is important to understand that customers measure their experience against their expectations” and defines customer expectations as the standard of experience the customer expects from a company, which co-relates to studies that state.

“expectations provide the standards whereby a person can compare a current experience with previous ones to form satisfaction judgments (Cardozo, 1965; Zeithaml et al., 1993) (Mattila, 2013).”

In the article, does a surprise strategy need words? The effect of explanations for a surprise and delight strategy. We can read that a pleasant surprise may influence repeat business (Pine and Gilmore, 1999), but it might also increase expectations for future purchases (Vanhamme, 2008) (Mattila, 2013). So, the question remains, how can a business maintain a consistently delightful experience when surprises are a part of the strategy. 

The fifth driver in the CX Academy framework says: deliver on your promise by doing what you said you were going to do. Perhaps the answer lies here? Referring back to the article, does a surprise strategy need words? The effect of explanations for a surprise and delight strategy. Founded in earlier studies regarding surprise and emotion, research was carried out to determine whether or not an explanation of what was about to happen and why it could benefit the customer experience. The findings support the fifth driver. It seems that offering explanations as part of your CX strategy will reduce expectations for such surprises in the future. However, it may also help make the customer feel special and delight the customer, enhancing the total customer experience. Furthermore, this suggests that businesses who understand this and communicate this within the workforce may empower staff to deliver surprises of delight under the requirement that it is offered with an explanation. 

“expectations provide the standards whereby a person can compare a current experience with previous ones to form satisfaction judgments (Cardozo, 1965; Zeithaml et al., 1993) (Mattila, 2013).”

You fix things, driver

This is about solving and fixing problems. Without going into depth here, we may assume that explanations will also benefit when things go wrong, such as an undesired surprise. An empathetic employee will put themselves in their customer’s shoes, understand that this surprise did not have the desired effect and offer an explanation.


This article has shared insights into how surprise and delight strategies relate to the overall customer experience. The most significant elements presented here are understanding how surprise can be experienced as both negative or positive. Secondly, utilising surprise as a business strategy should be grounded in the bigger picture that can be benefited from a framework, such as the one presented here from the CX Academy. Lastly, communication seems to be a significant factor; being open, honest, and offering explanations will be the differentiating factor for succeeding with a surprise and delight strategy. 


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