Loyalty Psychology Series: Customer Delight and Decision Affect Theory
8 August 2022
Georgette Mikhael

Customer delight is a powerful strategy that brands can use either tactically or as an ongoing technique to drive deeper member engagement. The emotion of ‘delight’ indicates a customer’s expectations are exceeded leading to an appreciation of the brand and its service.

There are numerous psychological studies measuring various level of customer expectation against satisfaction.

When a customer’s expectations are simply met, they will be satisfied.
When a customer’s expectations are exceeded, levels of satisfaction will also be elevated.
Interestingly, when a customer is unexpectedly delighted (‘Surprise and delight’) a substantial level of satisfaction ensues.

The element of surprise

Surprise has been identified as one of the six basic types of human emotion by American Emotion Psychologist Paul Ekman (1970’s), and has been described as a quite brief response characterised by a physiological startle following something unexpected.

Surprise can be a positive, negative, or neutral emotion.

The power of surprise can be wielded for the good of customer service due to the effects on human behaviour. Research has shown that people tend to disproportionately notice surprising events which is why surprising and unusual events stand out in the memory over other more ‘ordinary’ events.

Research has also found that people tend to be more swayed by surprising arguments and learn more from surprising information, a key strategy often employed by savvy salespeople and marketers eager to differentiate.

Notable studies on surprise and delight activity

(as summarised from Loyalty Programs, The Complete Guide, P. Shelper 2020)

Schwarz (1987)[1] ran a study to test the impact of a positive event occurring on a subject’s overall life satisfaction. He placed a small coin on a photocopier for the next user to find. Upon interviewing those who discovered the coin about their life perspective, it was found that they were ‘happier, more satisfied and wanted to change their lives less than those who didn’t find a coin’. Interestingly, the value of the coin appeared to be irrelevant to the fact that a significant and surprising event had occurred.

There is evidence to suggest surprise and delight activity can improve a person’s liking towards another. Regan (1971)[3] ran a study where a participant provided an unexpected bottle of Coca-Cola to the subject. Subjects reported liking the person giving the free Coke more than when no Coke was provided.

Mellers et al (1997)[4] explored the power of surprise and delight by looking at the difference between expected and unexpected positive outcomes. Their decision affect theory demonstrated that unexpected outcomes have a greater emotional impact than expected outcomes, even when the reward was of lower value. Their study required students to complete a task. The students were either told how much they would be rewarded prior to undertaking the task, or were surprised with a reward after completing the task. Smaller, surprising wins were shown to be more elating than larger, expected wins. For example, the researchers found a surprise $5 reward was rated as more enjoyable by subjects than an expected $9 reward.

Oliver et al (1997)[5] developed a customer delight model which hypothesised the loyalty psychology underpinning this effect. They found evidence that positive surprise and delight experiences elicit pleasure, joy and elation. They also proved that delight is a positively valanced state reflecting high levels of consumption-based affect, and the experience of delight creates a desire for future recurrences of the sensation via the repetition of consumption, which creates loyalty.

Most importantly, delighted customers have been proven to demonstrate higher loyalty to a company. Berman (2005)[6] reported significantly higher levels of loyalty from delighted versus satisfied customers. The findings also noted other potential positive consequences of delight to ‘include lower costs due to increased word-of-mouth promotion, lower selling and advertising costs, lower customer acquisition costs, higher revenues due to higher initial and repeat sales, and long-term strategic advantages due to increased brand equity and increased ability to withstand new entrants.’ Berman cites one study where ‘Mercedes-Benz USA found that the likelihood that a client who is dissatisfied with the service at a retailer will buy or lease from the same retailer is only 10 per cent. Mere satisfaction produces a 29 per cent likelihood of rebuy or re-lease. However, the likelihood of a delighted client rebuying or re-leasing is 86 per cent.’

Turning to neuropsychology, Pagnoni et al (2002)[7] found evidence that an unexpected event (such as surprise and delight) can powerfully stimulate the nucleus accumbens (the ‘pleasure centre’ of the brain), releasing dopamine into the blood stream, a hormone related to addiction. Subjects underwent MRI scans while having fruit juice or water squirted into their mouths through a tube either in a predictable or unpredictable pattern. The study found the nucleus accumbens responded much more strongly when the liquid was unanticipated, even with water. ‘The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI’, said study co-author Dr Montague. ‘That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.’[8]

Applications of surprise and delight campaigns within loyalty programs are extensive. They may include airline, hotel, rental car and banking programs sending premium members surprise gifts, telecommunications customers being invited to select from a range of unexpected rewards or meal kit delivery customers receiving something extra in their box.

As the research shows, if executed correctly, surprise and delight can be an extremely powerful tool used to generate an emotional connection with a company or brand, to drive purchase behaviour and to create genuine member loyalty. In order to execute surprise and delight effectively it should be unexpected (i.e. telling a member they will receive a $10 voucher on their birthday is not surprise and delight), be viewed as a gift, hold a perceived value and focus on the customer, making them feel truly special and recognised in that moment.

Case studies of surprise and delight done right

Mastercard’s Priceless Surprises

Mastercard US have been running a long-term advertising campaign which drives their social media presence called ‘Priceless Surprises’.[9] The campaign surprises cardholders with spontaneous gifts ranging from specialty cupcake deliveries, concert tickets and seat upgrades to celebrity meetings.

The #PricelessSurprises campaign has surprised almost 100,000 cardholders spanning 25 countries, with Mastercard enjoying the benefits of masses of user-generated social media content which they also use to connect with potential cardholders.[10]
They have even inspired existing members to gift their own surprises to family and friends, further expanding their reach and advocacy.

Shell’s Go+

Shell’s loyalty program members have on occasion received an email including a reward link entitling the member surprise rewards such as a significant point bonus or free coffee.

Delta Airlines

Delta has often delighted their most valuable customers with numerous examples across the web. An example of this is covered in this article where a Delta Frequent Flyer member had a tight connection while on business travel and was surprised by a Delta representative holding an iPad with their name. The airline had identified and anticipated the tight connection and had a Porsche waiting on the tarmac to chauffer the valued member to their next connection allowing 30 minutes to spare in the Delta Sky Club lounge.

United Airlines

Surprise and delight efforts do not need to be expensive such as this example from a United Airlines Frequent Flyer member. The member was getting ready to board a plane when they were summoned to the front of the boarding line, congratulated on that day being their 15th anniversary as a member and allowed to board the plane first allowing a stress and crowd free 4 minutes before all other passengers began boarding.

Delight in engagement

While it may be difficult for a brand to have an always-on surprise and delight strategy, some effort in even tactical surprise and delight campaigns is a worthwhile exercise for positive public relations and driving deeper engagement with the most valued of customers.

A loyalty program should almost always have an element of surprise to refocus members on the brand and differentiate from competition.

[1] Schwartz, N., 1987, ‘Stimmung als Information (Mood as information)’.
[2] Ager, S., 1999, ‘A dime can make a difference,’ The Baltimore Sun, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1999-08-22-9908240363-story.html, accessed 11 June 2020.
[3] Regan, R., 1971, ‘Effects of a favor and liking on compliance’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 7, Iss 6, pp627-639.
[4] Mellers, B.A., Schwartz, A., Ho, K. & Ritov, I., 1997, ‘Decision Affect Theory: Emotional Reactions to the Outcomes of Risky Options’, Psychological Science, Vol 8, No 6, pp423-429.
[5] Oliver, R. L., Rust, R. & Varki, S., 1997, ‘Customer Delight: Foundations, Findings, and Managerial Insight’, Journal of Retailing, Vol 73, Iss 3, pp311-336.
[6] Berman, B., 2005, ‘How to delight your customers,’ California Management Review, Vol 48, Iss 1, pp129-151.
[7] Pagnoni G., Zink C. F., Montague P. R. & Berns G. S., 2002, ‘Activity in human ventral striatum locked to errors of reward prediction’, Nat Neuroscience, Vol 5, pp97-98.
[8] Sommerfield, J., 2002, ‘Human brain gets a kick out of surprises’, MSNBC,  http://www.ccnl.emory.edu/Publicity/MSNBC.HTM, accessed 11 June 2020.
[9] Mastercard, Priceless Surprises, https://pricelesssurprises.com/, accessed 29 June 2020.
[10] Ad Age, ‘Best Practices: How Brands Can Build Loyalty With ‘Surprise-and-Delight’ Efforts’, https://adage.com/article/digitalnext/brands-build-loyalty-surprise-delight-strategies/298425, accessed 29 June 2020.

<a href="https://loyaltyrewardco.com/author/georgette/" target="_self">Georgette Mikhael</a>

Georgette Mikhael

Georgette Mikhael is a Senior Strategy Consultant at Loyalty & Reward Co, the leading loyalty consultancy. Loyalty & Reward Co design the world’s best loyalty programs for the world’s best brands. She has worked in the loyalty and member benefits space for over ten years with brands across the financial services, legal, travel, retail, automotive, hospitality, philanthropy and technology industries with brands such as Mastercard and the Westpac Group. Georgette has particular interest and expertise in commercial sales, strategic partnerships, business development and customer engagement successfully conceptualising, implementing and overseeing innovative strategies & campaigns for account and business growth.

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