My wife and I are in the middle of brainstorming cool presents for our three granddaughters. We asked them for suggestions. The 11 and 13 year olds took a clipboard and made a list, complete with brand names and model numbers. But, the 9 year old took a completely different approach. On the clipboard under her name she wrote, “Just surprise me!”

Customer service for many years had more than its share of surprises. My hometown grocer would give my brother, sister and me a free fireball when my parents were there to buy groceries. Fireballs were a super popular hard candy. It was not that long ago the mechanic would repair something he spotted defective when my car was on the rack and fix it without a fee. Today, such generous, unexpected behavior is rare.

What has made customer surprise in such a scarcity? Some of its dearth can be blamed on expense cutting in the face of ever-challenging profit margins. Rising customer expectations can be another culprit. After a great experience with Amazon, Nordstrom, or Bubba’s Bait shop, our criteria for an A+ in service gets raised for every other service provider. But, one subtle perpetrator of surprise theft is organizational leadership’s insistence on applying production thinking to customer experience. When the computer, instead of the gate attendant, upgrades you to first class as a frequent flyer, you get a dose of plain vanilla consistency where you once got an interpersonal surprise!

Yet, today’s customers long for experiences to be sparkly with a cherry on top. Meeting the challenge of rising expectations requires rethinking the role of those employees who are face-to-face, ear-to-ear and click-to-click with customers. It means leaders trusting front-line employees to create, not just execute. The more they are resourced and freed to be generous and ingenious, the more they bring their high esteem to the service provider-customer co-creation resulting in customers who are eager to tell others.

On Christmas morning when my three granddaughters open their presents from us, the two older girls likely will say, “Oh, thanks.  You remembered.” We’ll get a hug and they will be so happy their “catalog order” arrived. But, the younger one will have a completely different reaction. She will squeal, show her parents, and then run tell her neighborhood friends. Not, because her gift was more over-the-top than the others.  But, because it was a surprise gift, not order fulfillment. Exactly like your customers.