The How of WOW

Recently, while on vacation, Gail and I saw two movies in the theater. (I’m not going to mention which movies, because whether you agree with my assessment is not the point.) Both movies sounded great. We eagerly looked forward to seeing them.

Little Boy Opening Christmas Present - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #2575217

Photo courtesy of ©

Unfortunately, we were disappointed in both movies. We left the theater regretting that we had made the investment in terms of money and the time.On the morning after the second movie, I went running. I began to think about my experience of disappointment with the movies. Suddenly, I had a revelation. The essence of WOW is this:

You must exceed the customer’s current expectations.

That doesn’t sound all that profound. But I think it has big implications for those of us who are committed to creating WOW experiences.

First of all, each person brings a set of expectations to each experience. Those expectations may be conscious or unconscious. They may be general or specific. They may be vague or clearly defined. Regardless, no customer comes to any experience without some kind of expectation. It’s just the way the human mind works.

In the case of the two movies I described above, several things shaped my expectations:

  • My previous experience with the series (both were sequels)
  • My familiarity with the book on which the second movie was based
  • The movie trailers I had seen
  • The few reviews I read online before seeing the movies
  • The recommendations of a few close friends who had seen the movies

The point is that I came to each movie with a very defined set of expectations. Note also the use of the word “current” in my definition. My expectations for movies were different twenty years ago. They were even different a few years ago, before movies like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Each successive WOW creates a new threshold for the next one.

In any event, I could have had three different experiences relative to my expectations:

the wow experience stoplight

Please note that only the green light is a WOW experience. The other two are NOT-WOW. Good is not good enough. If you are committed to creating a WOW experience, then only the green light is an acceptable outcome.

By the way, you don’t have to make every experience in life a WOW. If everything is a WOW, then pretty soon, nothing is a WOW. But you must be able to identify which experiences you want to make a WOW, and then have a process—or a “technology”—for creating that outcome. I call this “the how of WOW.” It involves asking five questions:

  1. What is the experience I want to create or transform into a WOW?
  2. How will the customer feel as a result of this experience? (In other words, what is the specific outcome we want to create?)
  3. What specific expectations does the typical customer bring to this experience?
  4. What does failing to meet customers’ expectations for this experience look like?
  5. What does exceeding customers’ expectations for this experience look like?

These questions can be used on your own or in a group setting to create a WOW conversation.

To illustrate, let’s say that we have realized that our product is more than the artifact we produce (e.g., inspirational books). It is the total customer experience, and it begins from the moment our customers walk into our corporate lobby. We determine that we want to make this a WOW experience. Here’s one way we could apply the questions:

  1. What is the experience I want to create or transform into a WOW? The customer’s lobby experience.
  2. How will the customer feel as a result of this experience? (In other words, what is the specific outcome we want to create?) They feel that we must be an extraordinary company because they have never had a lobby experience like this. They assume that we are somehow really different, and they can’t wait to experience more.
  3. What specific expectations does the typical customer bring to this experience?
    • They expect the lobby to be clean, neat, and well lit.
    • They expect the receptionist to be friendly and professional.
    • They expect the receptionist to call the appropriate person and notify them they have a visitor.
    • They expect to be asked to sign-in and put on a visitor’s name badge.
    • They expect to be seated while they wait.
    • They expect to wait 5–10 minutes before being admitted.
    • They expect a few, probably slightly out-of-date magazines to thumb through.
    • They expect to be met by the person they are meeting.
  4. What does failing to meet customers’ expectations for this experience look like?
    • The lobby is dirty, messy, or dimly lit.
    • The receptionist is distracted, cold, or rude.
    • The person gives them the third degree, almost as if they are asking them to prove that they have an appointment.
    • They are told (not asked) to sign in and handed a cheap, adhesive label. They are told to print their name on it. They affix the label to their coat, but it keeps falling off.
    • There is no where to sit or all the seats are occupied. They must stand.
    • They have to wait for more than 10 minutes.
    • There is either nothing to read or the magazines are badly worn and outdated.
    • They are told where to go and have to navigate a building they have never been in.
  5. What does exceeding customers’ expectations for this experience look like? (I am going to describe this as though it were my lobby here at Thomas Nelson.)
    • The lobby is clean, neat, well lit, and beautiful. It is decorated with interesting artifacts from the company’s history with little cards explaining the significance of each one. A running fountain and a small indoor pond creates a soothing oasis from the noise of the street outside.
    • The receptionist has the title of “Director of First Impressions.” She understands the strategic importance of her job and takes great pride in her role at the company.
    • The receptionist always refers to visitors as “guests.” The term visitor implies someone who doesn’t quite belong and whom everyone hopes leaves quickly. The term guest implies someone who is to be honored and shown hospitality.
    • The receptionist warmly greets the guest by name. The guest wonders, How did she know that? The receptionist extends her hand and introduces herself. She says, “It so nice to meet you (or see you again). We’re glad you’ve come by today!” or “It’s so nice to see you again. The weather is a lot warmer than when you were here in March.”
    • She then hands them a pre-printed “guest” badge. (If the person came in unannounced, she quickly prints a badge.) It is magnetic, rather than adhesive or a pin. It sticks to their jacket without damaging the fabric. The guest’s first name is in big letters. Their last name is printed in smaller letters underneath it.
    • The receptionist asks the guest if they care for something to drink. “I have bottled water, soda, or freshly brewed Starbucks coffee,” she says. If the guest says, “coffee,” the receptionist asks how the guest likes it.
    • The receptionist then says, “If you would like to have a seat, I will call [Name] and tell him you are here. I know he’s looking forward to seeing you. While we’re waiting for him to come down, I’ll get your coffee.
    • The guest sits down on a comfortable chair and notices a selection of the most recent edition of several popular magazines, as well as a few industry journals. In addition, there is a stack of one of our newly published books. A small card next to the stack invites guests to take a copy with our compliments.
    • The receptionist signs the guest in herself, after the guest is seated. This process is completely invisible to the guest.
    • Within five minutes, the person with whom the guest has an appointment steps into the lobby and warmly greets the guest. As they leave the lobby, the receptionist says, “It was good to meet you, [Name.] I look forward to seeing you later.”

This is, of course, just an example. But I think it illustrates how you can transform any experience (even an “ordinary” one) into a WOW experience. This process can really be applied to anything—a family vacation, a date with your spouse, a company meeting, or, yes, even the creation of a new book.

As I said previously, you don’t have to make everything a WOW. But once you learn the distinction between WOW and NOT-WOW, it is difficult to be satisfied with anything less.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • Christina Berry

    Okay, WOW, I want to be a “guest” in your lobby. Actually, working there sounds amazing, too!

    This applies to so much more than the usual artistic expressions. I can make dinner a WOW for my family, or bedtime a WOW for my kiddos, or a proposal a WOW for an editor–all by using some creativity and intentional thought.

  • Chris

    Great – I love how you’ve been able to flesh out your “wow” thoughts over the last couple of weeks. Very helpful.

    The example you’ve given is one where someone is “locked” (for lack of a better word) in place for a period of time – not too long but they are doing more than just passing through.

    What would/could a “WOW” experience look like if the person were passing through a foyer or other room before they get to the reception area?? Is artwork and a fountain enough to turn a room into a wow experience?

  • marina

    You made several WOW statements for me in this article. “Each successive WOW creates a new threshold for the next one” really struck a chord in me. In the job I currently have, I need to focus on creating a consistent level of GOOD/EXCELLENT then work toward WOW from there. Creating culture (Randy Elrod phrase) is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It can be a very lonely task until someone finally gets it. I’m currently trying to create a culture of thoughtful, creative, tech savvy excellence to the ministry I lead as well as the ones I have a hand in shaping. Thank you for helping me to verbalize what I’ve been trying to communicate through actions – “total customer experience” says it pretty well!

  • christa allan

    The traffic signal is an effective visual for ranking our experiences; in fact, I may “borrow” that idea for our upcoming school workshops.

    Our parish recently partnered with Philip Schlechty of the Schlechty Center for School Reform. One of his frameworks is: “Everything we do, every activity we create, every relationship we build, every Network we support is aimed at improving the capacity of schools to provide a quality education to children.”

    My students are “customers” in my classroom. When I don’t exceed their expectations, they’re drooling on their desks, and it makes for a long school year.

    I agree, not everything has to be WOW,but it all doesn’t have to BLAH. I mean, really, look at heaven. That’s a huge WOW.

  • Max Elliot Anderson

    I’ve recently been approached, by a film production company, about the potential of turning some of my action-adventures & mysteries into G-Rated, theatrical films. Don’t know if it will happen, or how much of a WOW factor they’ll have, but since I come from a motion picture production background, the idea is intriguing. So many recent films leave the viewer wanting.

  • Eric S. Mueller

    Disappointing movies is the perfect example of a failed wow experience. I can remember the movie Flight of the Intruder that came out when I was a teenager. The previews for the movie made it look like non-stop action and witty pilot comments. My friends and I all grew up in the military and were eager to see the movie. When it was released, we were so disappointed. The movie was a slow paced drama, while we were led by the marketing to expect something like Top Gun. We couldn’t enjoy the movie at all because of the expectation that was built up.

  • Colleen Coble

    What a great post, Mike! I’m going to sit down and list all the things a reader expects from my books then figure out how to exceed those expectations. You’ve really thought this through!

  • Michael Covington

    This reminds me of Ryan Matthew’s “Myth of Excellence”. Your point about not being WOW on everything is an important one. Not that we should aim for disappointing – but that we should aim for excellent in the places of highest priority for our organization. I would also say that excellence should have a “trickle-up” effect – if the right people are in the right places, WOW happens!

  • Karla Akins

    I put your list of “wow” questions at the top of the rough draft of my current Work in progress. Thanks!

  • Pete

    The motivation for creating a WOW experience seems to vary based on whether or not you want to develop a relationship or take an existing relationship to the next level. In the case of movies, if it is a one-off story or the last movie in a series, the producer/director may feel that they can afford to burn their bridges by over-promising and under-delivering if they simply want to cash out. The appropriate course of action seems to depend on the objectives in play. There may even be times when it is more prudent to minimize expectations—such as a new producer willing to take their time mastering their craft before they roll out a major release with an equally major marketing plan.

    In the publishing world, I sometimes wonder if we all (author, publisher, retailer, reader) would not be better off if we were more realistic in our how we establish expectations. If the return rate is any indication, something is off-kilter…

  • Tiffany Stuart

    I am reading a book called The How of Wow right now. About giving a speech.

    Anyway, this was great to see the difference of the wow factor working and not. I could see both of them.

    Thanks again.

  • Kerri Willoughby

    This speaks directly into the ability of the “WOW-er” to read into the expectations of the “WOW-ee”. If the assumptions are incorrect, the attempt will come off flat or contrived. Empathy and the ability to predict the expectation is half the battle, the other half is deciding how far you want to take the WOW experience.
    It has been said that ‘All disagreements arise from unmet expectations.’ I have yet to see this disproven.
    I look forward to reading more of your excellent blogs. Thanks Mike!

  • Roland Greco


    I would like to share this post with some friends. Is there a way to print it so that only the article prints and not all the other info on your blog?

    Thanks for taking the time to write these articles.


  • Michael S. Hyatt

    @Roland: Unfortunately, I don’t know of a way to do that. I need to figure it out. Even I occasionally have the need to do this. Thanks.

  • Timothy Fish

    To print just the post, you can select the text of the post using the mouse, right click on it and select “Print…” In the dialog box, set the Page Range to “Selection.” Alternatively, you can copy the text and past it into a Word document before printing, but what would wow me is if the webmaster would use CSS to format the information sent to the printer so that a person would get a nice looking page just by clicking the print button.

  • Michael S. Hyatt

    @Timothy: I am trying to find a CSS solution to this that creates a stripped-down version of the post, without the sidebar content. Stay tuned.

  • Timothy Fish


    Using your existing CSS and adding the following code seems to produce an adequate print CSS file, but I did not have access to base-weblog.css while I was playing with it, so there may be something I did not account for, during my fit of boredom.


    .content-nav {

  • Michael S. Hyatt

    @Timothy: Wow. Thanks! At the risk of imposing on you further, do I just need to add this to my style sheet? How does it know to only use this style when printing?

    So we don’t go too far off-topic, perhaps you could email me at at gmail dot com.

  • Amy Beth @ Ministry So Fabulous!

    This is such a great post! I’ve been back to read it several times already.

    Would you mind if I linked to it on my blog?

  • Michael S. Hyatt

    @Amy: Yes, please feel free to link back to it. Thanks!

  • Christopher

    Is the upcoming Lynne Spears book – mom of Britney Spears – supposed to be a wow moment? You folks puzzle the heck out of me.

  • Michael S. Hyatt

    @Christopher: You might be surprised.

  • Joni Ruhs

    Coming late to the comment party here, but…I have to say the biggest part of the WOW factor is sincerity. You can spot fake a mile away. Not that you have to act like a long lost buddy to a guest, but to really be interested in them or at the very least, their experience. I worked with a receptionist years ago who epitomized this concept. She was truly gifted for her position.

  • Helen Hanins

    WOW! I liked this post. I too am reading a book now called The How of Wow. I wish more people were more thinking like this! I saw a presentation this weekend called “The Big Idea” that inspired me to use WOW more –

  • Alex Lee

    I too saw “The Big Idea” this weekend and think it is wonderful. It touched, moved and inspired me. It is what I think the definition of WOW is, causing me to make a change.

    I also read “The How of Wow” but think the “How to Wow” by Jones is better.

  • mike miller

    Michael I agree with you about the WOW factor. As a fellow publisher I am convinced we need a new and fresh WOW factor in publishing! Thanks for the post.

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  • charles stone

    Great article. re-tweeted it.
    My recent post The Blog has Moved

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  • John Richardson

    Director of First Impressions… I'm going to make a frame for our receptionist! What a Great Idea!

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  • Joshua Hood

    Mike, you are a genius! How do so many businesses and churches not get this?! Exceeding expectations is not always easy, but it brings “WOW” to the customer & fulfillment and satisfaction to us.

    Joshua Hood

  • Josh Byrd

    Great post! This is EXACTLY how business should be done. Keep up the good work!

  • Josh Byrd

    Great post! This is EXACTLY how business should be done. Keep up the good work!

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  • W. Mark Thompson

    GREAT POINT HERE: “You don’t have to make every experience in life a WOW. If everything is a
    WOW, then pretty soon, nothing is a WOW.”  Makes me think of most books I read. A great book doesn’t really have great points or principles on every page. Great books may have a few great points/principles that I can walk away with. Of course the tone of plays a lot into that as well… as I’m sure it does with the WOW Factor too.

  • Travis Dommert

    Great post. Love examples of exceptional service experiences!  

    This sounds easy, but it is A LOT OF WORK mapping out each key customer engagement process from bad to good to wow (did this in one prev company).  But what an opportunity!  

    And when your team is versed in wow (and practices it to mastery), they are free to shine and let their authentic personality thru because the hard parts of their job have become as second nature as breathing.  …no more wondering “what should I do next?”Could we link or repost this in our blog with credits and links back to you?

  • Bryan Sullo

    I’m working through this with my team this afternoon. I realized, though, that our customers’ expectations are not always grounded in reality, and that meeting them, let alone exceeding them, may be impossible.

    For example, we might switch a customer to a new e-mail service. Our customers aren’t IT folks. They have no idea what’s involved in this process. If we didn’t tell them that there would be some disruption, their expectation would be that this is just something that takes place behind the scenes, and which is completely transparent to them. It’s not. Even if everything goes perfectly, it can be mildly disruptive.

    The important thing here is to SET the customer’s expectations first, so you can exceed it during execution.

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  • Chuck Feltz

    Enjoyed the post and you’re right on the money. In our work, we know “you can’t not have a customer experience”. It’s simply a question as to whether it is an intentionally orchestrated outcome for your customer or a set of disaggregated and uncoordinated encounters. We find 4 things are required to deliver consistent, knockout (or “WOW” as you say) experiences: anticipation, empathy, intentional design and execution. Thank you for the great post.

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  • RichardIsGod, In the

    And I thought WOW was World of Warcraft.

    Nothing but pointy-hair comments wondering why YOUR HEAD IS IN A BOX

  • Sherry Langland

    Another timely post for us teachers as we head into a new school year! Students, especially struggling students, need to feel valued in school. This is one way staff can help to build that connection. I’m going to use this model in our first department meeting to create a WOW first day back for students.

    • Jon D Harrison

      great application Sherry – I’m interested in hearing about your results!