A running joke of mine is that flower shops likely have the least informed customers of any business. I’d imagine most male customers base their purchase decisions on, “Ah yes, my girlfriend/wife/mom/sister says she likes those.”

I’m certainly in the same boat. And yet, whenever I do purchase flowers, I always go to the same place.

Why? The “product” is almost entirely out of this equation, so what would make me return to a specific place over and over? While location and convenience play some part, the real reason is customer service.

More specifically, it’s a few small gestures that keep me coming back. On the surface, they seem unimportant: 1. Someone from the store always helps me walk a large purchase to my car. 2. Someone from the store always approaches me when I enter and helps me find what I need.

What seems insignificant by itself has actually had a meaningful impact on my perception of the business—and since I’ve only ever used this flower shop for the past 5 years, I’d say these small gestures have had a tremendous return on investment.

This is the essence of the “frugal wow”—the creation, practice, and implementation of small gestures that create lasting loyalty.

Goodwill Is Built on Emotional Reactions

The support department of any company is not really in the business of shoes/software/books, etc; they are in the business of customer reactions.

The long echoed sentiment that “it’s the thought that counts” applies here—no longer must we use it to justify cheap birthday presents. In creating reciprocity and positive feelings in other people, it really is the thought that counts.

Psychologist Norbert Schwarz first made this apparent years ago in his famous “Dime Experiment,” which found that as little as 10 cents could have a meaningful impact on one’s attitude. According to Schwarz:

“It's not the value of what you find. It's that something positive happened to you.”

One important thing to note about the experiment and Schwarz’s conclusions on small, positive moments and an improved mood is that surprise is a key component:

“The dime only works if you're not aware you're happy because you found it.”

In customer service, this is why I emphasize the concept of “surprise reciprocity:” the art of figuring out, “What don’t customers expect us to do?” and then doing exactly that. Zappos’ surprise upgrades for many orders to next-day delivery is a classic example.

Nobody Raves About “Average”

In defining what it takes to be remarkable, Wharton Professor Jonah Berger has emphasized that it often only takes something like black toilet paper to make something worthy of remark:

“Toilet paper? Hardly seems remarkable. But a few years ago I made toilet paper one of the most talked-about conversation topics at a party. How? I put a roll of black toilet paper in the bathroom. Black toilet paper? No one had ever seen black toilet paper before. And that remarkability provoked discussion. Emphasize what’s remarkable . . . and people will talk.”

Frugal wows rest on the same principle. They aren’t “valuable” to customers for any monetary reason, but they are dearly valued and remembered because they create an experience that customers aren’t expecting.

In what is one of the most well-known frugal wow stories, 6-time Emmy winner and customer service champion Ross Shafer tells the story of Maria Garcia, one he’s shared with thousands of people:

With a single act of above-and-beyond-service, this woman left an impact that will be shared and talked about for a lifetime. This experience was remarkable because we know that most people wouldn’t provide that sort of service.

Imagine if Maria Garcia hadn’t returned with that Coke—the service would still have been satisfactory, but it was that little something extra that made it worthy of remark.

Let's look at another example, this one from Fred Reichheld, a Fellow at the management consultancy firm Bain & Company and someone often referred to as the “high preist” of customer loyalty:

One of my favorite examples of this happened at Rackspace, the managed hosting and cloud computing company. An employee on the phone with a customer during a marathon troubleshooting session heard the customer tell someone in the background that they were getting hungry.

As she tells it, "So I put them on hold, and I ordered them a pizza. About 30 minutes later we were still on the phone, and there was a knock on their door. I told them to go answer it because it was pizza! They were so excited."

Wow, indeed.

Planned vs. Spontaneous Wows

Planned wows are consistent, scalable ways that you can offer customers the sort of service that they can’t expect to find elsewhere—if you run a flower shop, I’d highly recommend you encourage employees to help fumbling guys like me out to their car, for instance.

Frugal wows, though, depend on spontaneity. By their very definition, they require customer service reps to call audibles in certain situations to turn it from a “meh” to a “wow!”

Thus, as we’ve discussed before, what really determines your service quality is hiring the right people and giving them the tools, training, and authority to make decisions. You can’t expect “random acts of kindness” to happen amidst a culture of rigidity.

Consider this notorious email from Zappos that has been passed around the web as a shining example of making the most out of the mundane:

Zappos Email view larger

What most people don’t remember is that in the original posting of this email, the top comment said this:

“If I had written an email like that at my previous customer service job I would have been fired on the spot for unprofessionalism.”

While it’s true that you need to decide what sort of tone is appropriate for your customer base, the important thing to note here is that this experience wouldn’t have happened if Zappos tied their support team down with red tape.

When you hire the right people, you can remove many of the restrictions that might squash a multitude of opportunities for spontaneous wows.

Using the Inversion Technique to Find Opportunities

One of my favorite mental models that I originally came across in Josh Kaufman’s book The First 20 Hours is the inversion technique.

While Kaufman applies it to personal learning, it’s interesting to see its business applications, especially when it comes to surprising customers. Here’s how Kaufman describes it in the book:

By studying the opposite of what you want, you can identify important elements that aren’t immediately obvious. Take white-water kayaking. What would I need to know if I wanted to be able to kayak in a large, fast-moving, rock-strewn river?

Here’s the inversion: What would it look like if everything went wrong?

  • I’d flip upside down underwater, and not be able to get back up.
  • I’d flood my kayak, causing it to sink or swamp, resulting in a total loss of the kayak.
  • I’d hit my head on a rock.
  • I’d lose my paddle, eliminating my maneuverability.
  • I’d eject from my kayak, get stuck in a hydraulic (a point in the river where the river flows back on itself, creating a loop like a washing machine) and not be able to get out.

If I managed to do all of these things at once in the middle of a raging river, I’d probably die – the worst-case scenario. This depressing line of thought is useful because it points to a few white-water kayaking skills that are probably very important:

  • Learning to roll the kayak right side up if it flips, without ejecting.
  • Learning how to prevent swamping the kayak if ejecting is necessary.
  • Learning how to avoid losing my paddle in rough water.
  • Learning and using safety precautions when rafting around large rocks.
  • Scouting the river before the run to avoid dangerous river features entirely.

This mental simulation also gives me a shopping list: I’d need to invest in a flotation vest, helmet, and other safety gear.

Now … I have concrete list of subskills to practice and actions to take to ensure that I actually have fun, keep my gear, and survive the trip.

Ditch the rafting metaphor, and you have a fascinating way of thinking about which parts of your experience could be improved in surprising customers with “wow” moments.

In other words, eat your own dogfood and think about 1. The worst things that could happen in the experience, and how support might turn it around, or 2. Things you personally hate about an experience in your industry. Knowing what’s wrong (or what might go wrong) allows you to turn weak elements into strong experiences.

For example, I’ve shared my disdain for the lackluster checkout pages many ecommerce shops have; they are confusing, impersonal, and unmemorable. If I ran an online store, you can bet that my “Thank You!” page would be specially crafted to be amazing.

Like Disney, you should focus on improving your experiences by improving your processes, polishing not only what is already great, but also optimizing the mundane.

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Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the customer success team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.