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Want to grow your business? Give customers more sprinkles

I had lunch in Chicago with Andy Sernovitz, former head of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and author of Word of Mouth: How Smart Companies Get People Talking. He invited me to Lou Mitchells, a downtown diner–that’s all I knew about the place at the time. When I arrived, the restaurant was packed and we were told we’d have to wait a short while for a seat.

I had lunch in Chicago with Andy Sernovitz, former head of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and author of Word of Mouth: How Smart Companies Get People Talking. He invited me to Lou Mitchells, a downtown diner–that’s all I knew about the place at the time. When I arrived, the restaurant was packed and we were told we’d have to wait a short while for a seat. The wait ended up being a minute or two, and in the interim we were offered a selection of donut holes.

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This place doesn’t make people wait to get fed, Andy said. He explained that depending on the time of day a selection of extras were offered to diners, everything from donut holes to prunes. After dinner, customers were given a free scoop of ice cream.

“I mention this place in my book,” Andy said. “Donut holes are not much, but it makes a difference to people. People will talk about it with their friends.”

Now considering the size of the portions that came to our table (our food looked nearly untouched at the end of the meal, yet we were stuffed) we hardly needed donut holes as a precursor, but something about offering food to waiting customers felt luxurious to me. Call me a cheap date, but I left that diner feeling incredibly satisfied.

Compare that with a recent dinner I had in my neighborhood at at new Indian restaurant. The place was neighborhoody but hip, and located in a renovated warehouse with stained glass windows. Upon seeing it my huband and our neighbor “Ooohed and ahhhed” simultaneously. Perhaps this place would be our next hangout.

We sat down for a while before being addressed by our waiter. I’d just been on a two-hour bike ride and was weak with hunger. I noticed that the menu featured several types of nan–the leavened bread often ordered in accompaniment with an Indian meal–and each meal selection included a type of nan as a complement. Though the nan was mentioned as a part of the meal, it was actually an additional charge. Each of us ordered some.

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We waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, our main dishes arrived, but not the nan. We waited as long as we could, but the food was getting cold, so we ate our meal without it. Near the end the nan arrived, and it was delicious; but it was late. We left the restaurant disappointed.

Donut holes, nan–it’s all just greasy bread in the end–but the circumstances behind how each was served are critical. When offered free donut holes before the meal, it felt like a perk, a courtesy. When served nan late and for an extra charge it felt like a stingy experience.

These examples remind me of how easy it is to create positive customer experiences, and, conversely, how to create detrimental word of mouth. Often it’s as simple as creating the perception of generosity, of abundance. If a product or service comes with an introductory consultation, an additional battery, free samples, donut holes for the people waiting in line, the consumer takes in these extras and feels good about his choice. But when these options are charged as premiums, measured by the ounce, or not made an integrated part of the customer experience, the perception tanks.

Another food example (I must be hungry): There’s a legacy ice cream parlor on the main street near my house. At any time of day until midnight you’ll see a line of people waiting for their ridiculously large scoop of ice cream. People wait sometimes for a half hour to be served. The first time I went to the parlor I was warned: Order the child scoop. I’m glad I did; I could hardly finish my serving. Even my husband, who has this inhuman ability to consume large amounts of food, couldn’t finish his sundae in one sitting, or even two.

When you order a pint of ice cream, the servers stuff as much ice cream as possible into the container, using special tops that allow for overflow. Even the ice cream is “stuffed”; my favorite flavor, Coffee-cookie dream, has whole chunks of Oreo cookies and cookie dough in every bite. Yet when I buy cookie dough ice cream in a store, I have to dig forever to find a chunk of anything.

Though we know we likely won’t finish our ice cream we feel we are getting a generous experience, one that makes the half hour in line worth the wait. Recently the parlor raised its prices considerably, and still people come in droves. We feel we get what we pay for.

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As much as I love this ice cream I always feel a bit guilty about eating so much of it. I was thrilled when a new non-fat, low-calorie ice cream parlor opened down the street. I figured that tons of women like myself, who love ice cream but felt guilty eating pints of it, would be lining up to try this healthier version. But that never happened.

I visited this new parlor the week that it opened. The staff were friendly and there to answer my questions about why their product was healthier. I was given a loyalty card that promised me a free serving after my tenth visit. I ordered a plain vanilla, fat-free serving and asked what sprinkles I could have on top of it. The cashier pointed to a bin of granola and a rather anemic looking bin of chocolate sprinkles. My heart sank. Even if these sprinkes were healthier options, I wanted more of them. I wanted more than the little shake of chocolate dust that she put on top of my ice cream. I wanted a more generous experience.

At the end I didn’t need to struggle with the choice of low-fat or high-experience. This new ice cream parlor shut down in just a few months. It was clear to me why: They didn’t give people enough sprinkles.

What sprinkles can you offer your customers?

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