I forgot to add baking soda that was called for by the recipe. But, the cookies looked good when they came out of the oven. When my granddaughters added lots of colorful sprinkles, the cookies looked great. We were all excited. Yet, the look on their faces when they bit into their first cookie told the tale—the cookies looked awesome; they tasted bitter. And, we had to dump them out and start over.

Customers use detail management as an indicator of a service provider’s commitment to delivering a positive service experience. But, there is a more profound element of detail management that service providers often miss or misunderstand. As customers, there are core requirements we assume. We presume the commercial airline flight will be safe and the hospital will be clean. We believe the fast food we buy will not make us sick. And, customers are keenly aware of signals that leave them comforted or concerned about such core requirements.

But, core requirements are not static; they get generalized to other service assumptions. When passengers lower a serving tray on an airline and notice coffee stains, their negative reaction might not be about a sloppy cabin maintenance crew. It could trigger an intuitive leap to the condition of the plane’s engine and a fearful concern that the plane might crash. The customer’s perceptions about a bus driver with obvious alcohol breath are not just about the driver’s personal habits. And, a trashy restaurant parking lot might cause concerns about food preparation in the kitchen. Some details are much more significant than others. Some take customers straight to the core requirements they would prefer to take for granted.

Take a close look at the details of your customers’ experiences. Are there signals that leave customers worried about “big deal” core requirements? Are you a constant guardian of the details that feed customers’ perceptions? Just because you decorate customer’s experiences with awesomeness, will not alter the bitterness that customers feel if their core requirements are not met. Sprinkles only decorate when the service basics have been accomplished.