Tips for Creating a Value-Unique-Driven Contact Center

Recall your last really positive airline flight. Mine was on Southwest Airlines. The ticket was reasonably priced, like always. The boarding process was disciplined, like always. The trip was safe, like always. We landed on time, like always. But, there was unpredictability. Passengers were delightfully entertaining in ways that left them as surprised as getting four cherries in a row on a Las Vegas slot machine.

Service has two sides—the measurable outcome side and the emotional experience side. As customers, we want our outcomes to be consistent and predictable. But, when the customer experiences are predictably consistent, they feel like scripted automaton: Efficient but boring.

Here is a case in point. Airlines elected to objectify airline upgrades, completely robbing it of its affinity-building nature. Frequent flyers formerly hoped the gate agent would find a way to get them "up front" when flying on a coach ticket. And, when she called our names to present us with new first-class boarding passes, we called home to announce our thrill. "Thank you, Ms. Judy. Thank you, Mayday Airlines!" Now, the Ms. Judy's are uninvolved. We watch the upgrade board to learn if our names appear and if we get lucky, the computer generates our seat assignments. We don't call or tweet a soul.

When randomness is gone, the well-intentioned value-adds become a standard customer expectation, adding no value at all. As customer experiences are made consistent, the attraction of loyalty becomes programmed, expected, and apparent. No surprise; no loyalty.

What Science Tells Us About Random Stimulation

I was recently giving a keynote speech in Las Vegas. Always on the lookout for a story, I chatted with one of the casino managers. "Which gambling attraction is the biggest money maker?" I was waiting for blackjack or roulette. "The slot machines," he said, "Two-thirds of our revenue comes from these one-armed bandits, as guests call them." I learned it was about simple random stimulation, coupled with a few sensory reinforcements.

"When a guest wins, he gets a lot of affirmation," he continued. "Metal coins hit the tray, lights go on, sounds alert everyone around, causing other guests to get in on the winning action vicariously. Even four cherries across can make your heart skip a beat!" But it is the random stimulation that keeps guests pulling the lever hoping for a win.

You remember in Psychology 101 you learned how B.F. Skinner at Harvard experimented with pigeons in cages. To get a food pellet, the pigeon pecked a metal disk. Some got a reward every time they pecked; some on a programmed schedule—like every third peck. But, the pigeons most hooked were the ones that were randomly rewarded; the same psychology that drives the slot machines…and value-unique service!

Why the Demise of Surprise?

Surprises have been the target of six-sigma microscopes in search of quality variances to eliminate. Predictability and consistency heighten productivity and efficiency. Yet, they can be the enemies of innovation, novelty, and generosity. Surprise is, by definition, unpredictable and variable. Production thinking, while a boon to manufacturing, has rendered too many service experiences mechanical and unemotional.

The core property of a product is form; the core property of a service experience is feeling or emotion. Just as uniformity is a virtue of a product, so uniqueness is a virtue of a service. The service paradigm, while honoring efficiency and frugalness, recognizes the criticality of the human dimension and, thus, focuses on empowered employees able to adjust, adapt, and custom-fit service experiences to match the unique requirements of customers.

What is the solution? Bringing inventiveness and generosity back to the front line. Wise leaders create cultures that arm employees with the capacity, authority, and encouragement to deliver service with sprinkles. Such leaders understand the difference in inspiration and attraction between foreseeable value-added and random value-unique.

Here are a few quick examples applicable to any contact center.

  • Lexus' service departments brainstorm ways to surprise customers. For example, a customer who trades in a used vehicle for a new car might later discover his radio stations programmed in from the trade-in. Contact centers could hold "sprinkles sessions" to do the same thing.
  • When word spread that a Disney World hotel housekeeper had folded a washcloth to look like a swan to the delight of guests, there not only was a celebration, the idea was deliberately spread to every housekeeper in every Disney theme park hotel property. Affirmation is most robust when it turns into a best practice.
  • Hotel Monaco is not only a pet-friendly hotel, its hotel properties have a dog concierge in the lobby to greet guests as they arrive. The idea came from a guest who checked in with an extra people-friendly lab. When the guest suggested his dog remain in the lobby as the concierge, the hotel instituted the dog concierge idea. Ask customers their ideas for a value-unique surprise.
  • FirstBank and Trust elected to be the bank customers could count on as a financial advisor and mentor. The contact center delivered on that promise by providing customers with a quick financial idea or factoid as a part of their conversation.
  • Tesla made a large impact on the auto industry when it piloted "Easter eggs"—purely whimsical features, like turning the navigation map into what looked like the surface of the moon and the vehicle as a moon rover. Pilot cool ideas and retain the ones that work.

Today's customers expect experiences to be sparkly and glittery with a cherry on top. Meeting the challenge of rising expectations requires rethinking the role of those employees who are face-to-face, ear-to-ear, and click-to-click with customers. When service people are asked to give more, they often think, "I'm already doing all I can." But if asked to pleasantly surprise more customers, they feel less like worker bees and more like fireflies. Invite employees to create, not just execute, and they will feel esteemed... and their customers will feel enchanted.

Chip Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Ideas that Sparkle. He can be reached at