The surprising truth about surprises

“Surprise,“ we cheered as my niece entered the room. Our family had gathered in secret to celebrate her eighth birthday. The look on her face told it all, she was genuinely happy and, more importantly, not too freaked out. She’d never been to a surprise party, let alone been the subject of one and she found it a pleasant surprise.

How often do you get surprised? I do all the time. Not always pleasantly, though. It’s not pleasant to discover water seeping through your ceiling during a heavy storm – a recent, sad example.

Surprise happens when your expectations aren’t met; when the future doesn’t work out the way you thought it would, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Research is all about surprise

Or it should be. Research is about asking questions, questions where the answers aren’t predetermined. Unless you’re a lawyer, why would you bother asking a question you already knew the answer to?

Instead of being about surprise, research is often used to shore up an argument. An argument, for example: to continue with the way things are, to do nothing to improve a service, to make your boss happy, etc.

“80% of our users reported ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with our service.”

I groan when I see reports like this. It means (almost) nothing. If I’m unhappy with your service, but 80% of people are happy, am I just a whinger? Were the 20% who reported ‘dissatisfaction’ the most profitable customers? What does ‘satisfied’ mean in the context of the survey and the survey-takers? Satisfied with their decision to shop elsewhere?

Customer research leader, Forrester, has recently published Outside in: the power of putting customers at the center of your business. In it researchers Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine write about true customer research versus ‘customer satisfaction’ using the example of U.S. company, Office Depot.

The new company president Kevin Peters was alarmed at declining sales, and at rates that outstripped his competitors. At the same time, ‘mystery shopper’ scores “were going through the roof.” Puzzled, Kevin began to tour his stores and talk to customer about their experiences – which were almost uniformly unacceptable. How could Kevin reconcile the glowing mystery shopping reports with the declining sales and his own research?

The mystery shopping scores were actually correct – they were just asking the wrong questions: “Are the floors clean?” and “Are the shelves fully stocked?” As Kevin put it, “who cares?”

Kevin’s own observation and interviews told a very different – surprising – story. Office Depot customers wanted “to find office products they came for, quickly and easily,” and the company’s systems weren’t helping. (How he fixed the problems is another story.)

Develop a ‘surprise index’

Organisations need to develop a ‘surprise index’ as a measure of how customers perceive their experiences. Are your staff really empowered to ask questions they don’t know the answer to? Does your organisational culture support this? What will you do with the surprising results? Who will surprise you the most?

At a recent business networking event held by a government body I noticed all the staff standing around talking to each other – literally no surprises there. You have to work out why, who, how, where and when to talk to your customers to get the most surprises.

If your research doesn’t surprise you, then you’re asking the wrong questions or talking to the wrong people.

Mae West put it another way when she said: “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”