Impulse service on steroids

| by Chip Bell
Impulse service on steroids


"Your hand and your mouth agreed many years ago that as far as chocolate is concerned, there is no need to involve your brain." The funny line by comedian Dave Barry got me thinking about impulse buys.You are standing in the checkout line; your eyes spot a "got-to-have," and it magically ends up in your shopping cart. Later, you realize the appeal of the item was so compelling, your frugal brain was never involved in the decision making. In fact, your brain was not even notified!

Products involved in an impulse buy usually have some "eye catching" feature and are smartly positioned where a roving eye, bored by the wait, cannot miss. You also find them on computer pop-ups and "call in the next three minutes" television ads. In fact, time is generally a factor when impulse buys are involved. You quickly grab it in the check-out line before the clerk has completed ringing up all your items. Consumer psychologists enjoy hypothesizing about the ulterior motives of impulse buyers, but given the right "prize," the magnet effect is hardwired in us all.

If service was an impulse encounter, what would be its features? How do service providers convince customers to assume a "got-to-have" state of mind? And, what are the organizations that seem to consistently achieve this seriously sparkly sentiment? Below are three features that make service an impulse experience — comfort, sparkly, and unique.

Give it comfort, not fast and easy

The world of service has been enamored with the concept of "easy to do business with." Part of the drum beat influenced organizations to Customer Effort Metrics. The construct typically revolves around some "easy-to-difficult" continuum with a bias for simplicity. Some add dimensions around wait time (with "wait" as a bad thing). Repetition of action (like repeat calls) or added bureaucracy (like channel switching) are also sometimes included.

Impulse service, however, is not about easy as much as it is about emotional comfort. Imagine this question: "How easy was it for you to get your blood drawn by our hospital lab?" If a patient indicated it was "very easy," but when interviewed after the fact reported being "scared to death," has the hospital elevated patient loyalty? The bias of effort too often is toward quantitative measures like fast, slow, simple, difficult when the affinity of the customer is derived from comfort, not ease.

USAA gets super high marks for great service. How do they do it? Make a phone call to their contact center and you get the crème de la crème of one-stop shopping. Each agent has instant access to every letter, call record, email, and form communicated by the customer. Each customer is treated like an important member of the family. While USAA has a unique niche (military, former military and their family members), they have over 11 million customers — not exactly a mom and pop shop!

Make it sparkly, not plain vanilla

Customer experience is by definition a co-creation. It makes getting a service and buying a product fundamentally different.Customers do not go to the factory to help make the products they buy.  However, service is an intangible happening that, with the service provider, is co-created in the moment. Unlike product, service cannot be stockpiled; a sample cannot be sent to the customer in advance for inspection. When a product fails, the ire of the customer is directed at the object, "this dang thing you sold me." However, if a service fails all the negative energy goes to the service person. It underscores the collective nature of a service experience.

Sparkly is more than the shiny object side of service; it is an experience that yields a sense of joyful connection. It is a social experience of kinship that is a bonding agent. As a collective experience, it mixes egalitarian collaboration with delightful surprise. We have all been party to those service encounters where the relationship clicked, the banter seems perfectly choreographed, and you departed with a sense you just made a close friend. It can be triggered by a tease, a compliment, or a rapport building action, but is unmistakably copacetic.

Chick-fil-A hires employees who demonstrate a confident, welcoming attitude. To that prototype, they add Ritz-Carlton Hotel style hosting skills, an affirming environment and leaders who act as a servant, not a boss. The fuse is now lit for a serendipitous customer connection that restaurant guests label as "neighborly." While the food is good, the prices fair, Chick-fil-A as impulse service is fueled by a joyful connection more than any other feature. In the words of CEO Dan Cathy,"the word 'restaurant' means place of restoration, and we think of Chick-fil-A as an oasis where people can be restored.

Ensure it is value unique, not value-added

Customers do not boast or tweet about good service. It becomes a "got-to-have" impulse when some component of the experience is a surprise.It is the "free prize" inside the Cracker Jack box phenomenon.It is more like the "of the soul" part of a Cirque du Soleil performance than the predictable pixie dust of a Disney theme park. And, it enchants in a fashion that entices the customer to share a "you’re not gonna believe" story.


The challenge with value-added is that it elevates the customers' expectations for their next encounter. Why can’t I always get upgraded to first-class or the concierge hotel level? While there is a limit to generosity, there is no limit to ingenuity. And, the organizations that sponsor and support customer surprise, get employees who are excited to be as special as fireflies, not weary with being just a worker bee.


Hotel Monaco is a brand of the Kimpton Group that specializes in value-unique. They know their primary target market — the business traveler — finds the typical mid-priced hotel experience (Marriott, Sheraton, Hyatt, Hilton) generally good to very good but not unpredictable. The six o’clock wine and cheese gathering in the lobby always has wine and cheese! But, the one at the Hotel Monaco adds a palm reader, mime, or close-up magician. Bathrobes in the guest room closet are leopard and zebra print, not boring white like their competitors. 


Synonyms for "impulse" are words like inspiration, incentive, stimulation and motivation.These words also characterize how loyal customers describe their experience with "got-to-have" organizations.  Look for ways to add comfort, sparkly and unique to your customer experiences and watch your magnetic service attract them back, bringing their friends.










Topics: Assisted Selling, Consumer Behavior, Customer Experience, POS, Shopper Marketing, Trends / Statistics

Chip Bell

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and author of several best-selling books including Take Their Breath Away, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences through Innovative Service and Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles. He can be reached at

wwwView Chip Bell's profile on LinkedIn

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