The Psycho-Mathematics of Surprise

describe the imageSurprises are memorable, but that’s not always a good thing.

Ask the traveling public what kinds of surprises await them, and you’ll quickly have a list topped by delights including hidden surcharges, flight cancellations, overbookings, weather delays, and lost luggage. Even though it’s statistically unlikely that any one of any of these things will occur during a given trip, we remember the disappointments. Moreover, each of these problems will likely have a brand name attached to it. Lost luggage doesn’t just happen; instead, “Airline X lost my bags.” Fair or not, that is how the customer remembers and talks about the situation.

Positive surprises get noticed, too. The fickle psycho-mathematics of surprise gives more weight to positive events than to negative ones, unless the two events are paired. When a happy moment is linked to a setback, the disappointing event will have greater value.

The real power resides in surprises that aren’t connected with negative events. These ‘just because’ acts brighten days and create brand loyalty. To claim full value, they cannot be seen as compensatory; they have to be manifested solely in kindness.  

“The hotel overbooked and didn’t have the room type we booked, so they upgraded us” is compensatory. “The hotel upgraded us to a junior suite. They didn’t say why, just ‘Enjoy!’ And we did!” is not. The reason may be the same, but in the second instance, the customer wasn’t made aware of the overbooking. Or maybe it was 11 p.m. and a front desk agent saw an exhausted parent with two cranky kids in tow, checked inventory, was empowered to act, and thought, “They deserve a break.” Either way, the hotel will have transformed a guest into an appreciative advocate.

If true ‘just because’ surprises are few and far between, it’s because the argument that margins are thin enough without distributing armloads of freebies is a persuasive one: Free meals, unlocked minibars and room upgrades for everyone would be impractical and expensive.

Pleasant surprises need not cost much, though.

I once worked with a major international airline that had just started service to Kyiv, Ukraine. There wasn’t much money in their promotions budget, but they wanted to get people talking about their service. International Women’s Day (the Eastern European version of Valentine’s Day) was coming up, and it is taken very seriously. We quickly ordered a supply of little individually wrapped chocolates emblazoned with the airline’s logo. After the Boeing 757 taxied to the gate, the captain announced that the airline would greet each lady as she deplaned.

The response was fantastic. Passengers loved it, the media loved it and even folks at the airline’s headquarters were talking about it. One small, unannounced surprise cast a very long shadow.

Hospitality is all about making people feel welcome, valued, respected and comfortable. Kindness is an integral part of that equation as well. Guests don’t need to hear our problems when we’re overbooked or the pool is closed for cleaning or the elevators are out of service for thirty minutes while an inspection is being performed. So far as the guest is concerned, hotels should be stress-free zones. A ‘just because’ surprise now and then, unconnected to a problem or to an advertised frequent guest perk, adds to a positive experience.

Implementing the psycho-mathematics of surprise can as simple as empowering staff to show genuine caring and provide in-the-moment kindnesses. It’s fun, fulfilling, inexpensive, and ultimately will make a huge difference in the way everyone feels about your brand.


Scott H. Lewis is managing director for the CIS region of Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He is the author of The Kindness Cure: 52 Weeks to a More Fulfilling Life.  An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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