As marketers, we know that every new customer represents great potential for adding substantial value to our companies over time. Which is why we tend to put so much focus on new customer acquisition. We also know that each experience a new customer has with a brand, across all touchpoints, affirms the customer’s choice to begin this new brand engagement. Or not.

What is sometimes overlooked, however, is that loyalty to a brand often begins to develop or devolve even before a person has chosen to use a product or service. In fact, we begin to build customer loyalty even before someone has truly become a customer.

How do you begin building early loyalty? One way is to include a pleasant surprise in the earliest phases of the relationship (often called the “onboarding” phase). Do so and you can get an immediate positive boost in loyalty and word of mouth.

Here’s an example I recently experienced firsthand. In my work I frequently stay in hotels. Over the years, I’ve developed a relationship with a favorite hotel group. Depending on various factors, I stay at one or two brands of hotels within this group every time I travel. (Call me loyal!)

On a recent trip to Austin, Texas, I made the mistake of booking my preferred hotel for the wrong dates. When I went to check in, the hotel was full and could not accommodate me. They suggested another hotel brand within their group. I was grateful this other brand had a room available, but I was a little annoyed for three reasons: 1) I was annoyed at myself for making a booking mistake; 2) I was annoyed at the inconvenience of driving a few miles to this other brand; and 3) I’d heard mixed reviews about this brand, and as such, hadn’t stayed there.

When I arrived at the new hotel, however, I was pleasantly surprised. The check-in process was quick and efficient. The clerk was cordial and seemed genuinely happy to have me there. The lobby and room were stylish and comfortably appointed. Most important, I experienced some additional quick and early “surprises” that showed me that this hotel was “different” from the typical hotel.

One surprise was hanging in the closet: an offer for free laundry service. Another surprise was a small sign indicating that a hotplate was available for cooking needs beyond the microwave as part of the modern kitchenette in my room. Finally was their choice of neon green paint on the railings in the stairwells. I take the stairs whenever I can, and that bright green railing brought a chuckle up from deep inside and washed away all my annoyances, even the ones I had caused myself. I felt real surprise and delight at these little touches. I’m going to stay at this hotel again.

While not everyone will find themselves chuckling at the choice of paint color on stairwell railings, I’m in fact no different from your own newest customer. I bring my attitudes and perceptions to the point of initial purchase or interaction, and those perceptions are confirmed or challenged as I come on board. This is true for both goods and services, whether obtained in person, online or in app.

Why not challenge perceptions in a positive way every time, with a pleasant onboarding surprise?

This surprise can be a useful tidbit of information, a suggestion for an accessory, an affirmation or, yes, even painting stairway rails bright green. All these small surprises help to build positive perceptions and loyalty. They’re fun, too. Not just for your customers, but for your team who gets to see the smile of delight—and future brand loyalty—on the other side of the desk, call or keyboard.

Send me a note sharing your experiences with getting a pleasant surprise as part of your onboarding to a new brand experience, and I’ll let you know which hotel brand gave me these pleasant surprises.

Marcus Wagstaff

Vice President of Business Development at Comet Global Consulting

Marcus leads the business development function for Comet in North America, focusing on building new client relationships and growing mutual successes with Comet’s technology partners. With over 20 years’ experience selling customer experience solutions in the healthcare, insurance, and life sciences industries, Marcus helps clients achieve their visions, enabled by technology. Marcus holds a degree in Management with an emphasis in International Marketing from Brigham Young University.