It can happen when astonishment leaves her delighted. Alternately, it can happen when disillusion causes dismay. The first produces positive word-of-mouth. The second, negative.
But either way, for word-of-mouth to sustain and grow, the high level of emotion your customer feels must be unexpected.
You see, routine events never get discussed. In order for an event to be worthy of being talked about, it must be out of the ordinary. And that becomes the danger in each additional step you take to delight your customers. The experience eventually becomes routine.
Offer a free desert in your restaurant to everyone who’s ordered an entree, and people will talk.
At least at first.
But as people react to your new generosity, two outcomes become predictable:
1) Your customers will grow accustomed to your new offer, and consider it just part of the meal they’re choosing when they enter your establishment. Delight fades quickly when the surprise goes away.
2) Your competitors will copy your idea. You’ll lose the competitive edge. When everyone does it, the only possible outcome is thinner margins for the industry. Think “frequent flyer” miles as a classic example.
What we need is a way to keep the surprise element high. For that, we turn to one of the fathers of behavioral psychology, Burrhus Frederic Skinner.
B. F. Skinner created a branch of psychology known as operant conditioning. He demonstrated that when properly rewarded under specific conditions, living beings will change their voluntary behavior.
Once they learned to feed themselves, Skinner split the rats into two groups. The first never got another pellet by pressing the lever. The second group got the reward sometimes, always following a pressing of the lever, but never at any predictable interval.
The first group quickly stopped pushing the lever. The second group never did.
We intuitively grasp the the actions of the first group. It’s not so easy to understand the second, but its important that we do. Whether discussing lab rats or your customer base, the second group is where the money is.
Do humans push levers?
Absolutely. And the more random the reinforcement, the more unpredictable the payoff, the more frequently they will push.
Watch someone feed quarters into a slot machine. Isn’t the attraction of any form of gambling the incredible delight experienced by the gambler when surprised by a win?
This tendency to keep pushing the lever also describes why the faithful keep praying for miracles. Every now and then, at random intervals, their prayers appears to be answered.
And those folks who check e-mail multiple times a day, hoping that this time there will be something new? Yup. They’re also still pushing the lever.