Getting Real about Customer Delight: The Strategy of Emotional Outcomes

Jaimi "J.J." Kercher
Head of Product at Toro TMS

It’s all the rage, and is often the reason we get out of the bed each day – we want to delight our customers in everything we do. I’d bet that at least 75% of those reading this post would say that “Customer Delight” is somewhere in the top 3 stated goals of their company for the year. So, each day, well-intended product teams across the globe rally behind delight as an outcome in their work, eagerly awaiting their customers’ reaction as a barometer for success.

Getting Real about Customer Delight: The Strategy of Emotional Outcomes

In my experience, however, these teams frequently lack a shared definition of what “delight” looks like in the context of their current initiative. Missing this up-front alignment inevitably creates dissonance between individual team members and their subjective interpretation of the customer feedback. The result is a team often in disagreement around when the work is “good enough” to move on to the next thing. The truth is, however, it’s likely that delight isn’t the goal. Delight as an outcome for every single feature or customer touchpoint is not only unnecessary and can be prohibitively expensive, and it’s also pretty close to impossible.

Unfortunately, the phrase “customer delight” has lost its potency, as evidence that its definition seems to vary depending on the work context. But, before we indoctrinate the phrase into the swirling no man’s land of synergistic business buzzwords, I propose we reclaim it to portray the deeply emotional response for which it was initially intended. Rather than seeking to delight your customers at every corner, save it as a strategic outcome for the moments that truly matter.

The Diluted Definition of Customer Delight

Over 20 years ago, a business trend emerged suggesting that delighting customers was measurably more profitable than simply satisfying them. Foundationally, the idea breaks down these two important definitions:

“Customer satisfaction is the process of achieving goals and consistently delivering the value you promised.

Customer delight, on the other hand, is the “wow” factor. It proves to the customer that you intimately understand their needs and can proactively anticipate ways to improve their situation.”

By definition, then, simply satisfying customers can have the same potential to deliver high value as delighting them does. But, for some reason, we don’t set goals around that outcome. Meeting expectations isn’t as alluring as exceeding them, and years of favoring words that foster inspiration and motivation among employees have eroded their meaning. And, trust me, words matter. Especially when it comes to setting clear goals that you want the intrinsically subjective humans in your business to align around. Add in the fact that we’re talking about emotions, which are difficult to measure, and you have a surefire recipe for misinterpretation and misalignment.

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Delighted by Relief

For example, I once worked with a team that was finally picking up essential iterations of a feature MVP after over a year of customers begging for the full functionality. Being a team highly motivated by customer delight, they released small iterations and monitored the beta group’s feedback closely as their measuring stick for understanding when they’d met the need. Within two weeks of the estimated 4-6 week project, praise started rolling in from the beta customers. Customers inundated the team with gratitude and excitement, and since evoking delight was their metric of success, there was talk that they had solved the customer pain and could move on ahead of schedule and budget.

Here’s the thing, though: The customer pain around not having the additional functionality was so significant that many had to abandon using the original MVP (a lack of engagement that triggered the business reason for prioritizing the work). When they saw the improvements, they were genuinely delighted. But in this instance, their delight wasn’t at all due to exceeding their expectations; instead, it was their reaction to the feeling of relief. Providing this relief was the emotional equivalent of giving a small bottle of water to someone stranded on a deserted island. The smallest sip of water will surely delight them with temporary relief, but that alone won’t save their life.

So, in theory, we can delight our customers by merely starving them first. That’s not our goal and not suitable for business, but it demonstrates the ambiguity of setting goals for emotional outcomes without clarifying their meaning.

After much discussion and deliberation, the team ultimately made the right call to keep working with customers on the iterations, and still finished ahead of schedule. Upon the full release, customers’ response didn’t delight as defined by “wowing” customers and exceeding their expectations. But simply satisfying their need made customers happy and saved several accounts that had threatened to churn. It was a massive win for both customers and the business.

Return on Innovation as a Deliberate Strategy for Emotional Outcomes

At the core of being misaligned on an emotional outcome such as delight is that emotions are personally subjective. Thankfully, there are some ways to help teams get aligned on these goals at the onset of a project and help them track progress against them over their work.

In his 2015 LinkedIn article, Geoffrey Moore introduced three categories for innovation efforts: To differentiate, neutralize, or optimize. It has since become a simple and effective lens for businesses to look through to make conscious decisions about where and how to invest focus. These innovation classifications are also a great way to align product development teams on the intended outcome of a new feature or improvement and how to determine when the work is good enough to move on.

1. Delight to Differentiate

First, to differentiate a product (or feature or service) means that customers get more value from it, then they could go anywhere else in the market. For product development teams, efforts intended to differentiate should far exceed any other solutions and require a high level of care and feeding to achieve that outcome. But differentiation isn’t just about checking more boxes than your competitor, instead of creating a response from customers that send them flocking to sign up and even pay extra for your solution. Differentiation is highly focused on the emotion, and in this case, we are truly talking about delight. This is the same psychology behind why people will buy a brand of food that’s twice as expensive as its competitor with the same ingredients or choose a bottle of wine based on the label’s design. It makes them feel good.

2. Neutralize to Meet Expectations

Often product development teams are tasked with building a solution to neutralize a competitive one. Almost all feature development motivated by sales objections fit into this category, and it’s important work! Wowing customers is not the goal of neutralization efforts. In fact, more often than not, customers (or prospects) are already wowed with the product but find themselves in a predicament where they might need to use a different solution because yours is lacking. In the case of the story I shared earlier, the work that team was doing fit clearly in this category in retrospect. The goal was to keep the product usable and at least up to par with competitive solutions, so aspiring to delight customers here wasn’t all that practical and would have been unnecessarily expensive (in terms of time invested). Neutralization efforts are best poised to satisfy your customers simply: Deliver the value they asked for and expect.

3. Optimize to Improve Satisfaction

Finally, Moore describes efforts that optimize as more internally focused – delivering the same value to customers more efficiently to save on costs. But providing the same value more efficiently is also a crucial customer-facing goal that product development teams can and should continuously prioritize. Looking at optimization from a value exchange perspective, many of these efforts are win-win for the company and the customer. From a customer’s emotional outcome perspective, I find this kind of work addresses functionality that was once exciting but has lost its luster, usability or performance over time. In these cases, the customers are less than satisfied, and the goal is to return them to equilibrium.

Measuring Emotion

I know what you’re thinking, “that can’t be done!” But, while it’s true that emotion is a complex and personal experience, there are some ways that product teams can gauge, normalize, and track their work against the intended emotional outcome.

The most obvious metric is the Net Promoter Score (NPS), which asks customers how likely they are to recommend the product or service to a friend. Foundationally, NPS gets to the excitement a customer feels about your business and their drive to refer others to it. And, that’s right, excitement is an emotion. NPS is an excellent company-wide indicator of how customers feel about their business, but it does little to help teams hyper-focused on a specific solution. These teams can introduce a Transactional Net Promoter Score (tNPS) survey as part of the experience they are building that asks customers how likely they are to recommend the company based on this interaction.

Another useful metric is the Customer Effort Score (CES). Originating from the realm of customer service and focused on how easy or difficult it is for customers to resolve issues, the intent is also highly applicable to product development in terms of user experience. Making tasks effortless to complete in your product leaves customers feeling confident and in control. Some studies show that reducing and simplifying customer effort can have a stronger correlation to retention and loyalty than delight. Asking customers how easy or difficult it was to use the solution you built is a highly valuable approach to validating your work.

Finally, measuring perceived value via the Product/Market fit question gets at the core of emotions by asking customers how they would feel if they had to stop using the product, from very disappointed to not at all disappointed. Like the examples above, teams can ask this question specifically about a feature or improvement to understand how well it meets their needs as part of their build, measure, and learn feedback loop.

I’ve seen teams successfully adopt these models to set goals that align with the emotional outcome they want to achieve and implement one-question surveys to track against that. The goal you will set will depend on the purpose of the work. For neutralization efforts, for example, a high tNPS goal would certainly be overkill, but ensuring that at least 40% of customers would be very disappointed to stop using the feature might be a more reasonable gauge.

Customer Delight Still Matters!

To those businesses setting delight as a high-level goal for the year, I say that is still an important strategy! But, instead of encouraging employees to seek delight in all of their work, be more explicit about the touchpoints and interactions where it truly matters. As a gut check, ask yourself if customers would be excited about the goal’s bullet points. Or, better yet, ask them.