“Surprise” is a loaded word.
We delight in surprise parties (well, maybe as long as we’re not the one being surprised) and we dislike surprise hairs in our soup (particularly if they’re not our color). It’s a powerful concept, although I guess the scientists would tell you that it’s not the surprise itself that’s the issue – it’s the emotions that follow the surprise event.
Surprise is a concept of which we need to take full advantage in business while simultaneously avoiding it like the plague. When a customer can’t find something in the store, we can take joy in their surprise when a store employee digs around in the back until they find an item thought to be out of stock. This happened to the Mrs. just this past weekend. She’s now a customer for life and has been telling the story to everyone. Earned media indeed!
On the other hand, when you advertise a product on sale and are out of stock an hour after the store opens, customers feel as if they’ve been lied to – it’s hard for them to believe you haven’t pulled a classic bait and switch to get them to the store.
Managing people often involves surprises of both sorts. There are little ones like a key person calling in sick and big ones like them resigning. On the other hand, sometimes we’re surprised by pieces of business those employees find out of the blue or by their achieving a higher standard in their work. Yay!
I guess what it all means is that we need to manage expectations constantly both to avoid the bad kinds of surprise and to increase the impact of the good kind. No, we shouldn’t have people thinking that a hair in their soup is permissible – that shows a need to manage something other than expectations – but we can make sure that when we set standards we adhere to them. Customers and employees notice. Our job is to surprise them in the good way. Given how few organizations are able to get to their own professed standards, it shouldn’t be that difficult a task. You agree?