What Is Customer Delight?

Jeff Sauro, PhD

The Four Seasons Hotel in Vail, Colorado, includes twice-daily housekeeping service.

In addition to the usual room cleaning, in the evening they “turn down” your room by doing things such as preparing the bed, cleaning up, and closing the shades for you while you’re out at dinner.

Many luxury hotels offer turn-down service, so that’s likely an expected amenity of the discerning traveler.

But in winter months they will also place warmers inside the sheets to warm your feet after a day filled with winter sports.

That’s an unexpectedly pleasant amenity. Many would say it’s delightful. And it’s done intentionally by a brand that’s intent on keeping your business and hoping you’ll tell a friend.

And at the coffee shop I frequent, I’ll occasionally get a little something unexpected on my cappuccino from the barista who recognizes me as a regular.


The famous quality pioneer Edwards Deming said that it will not suffice to have customers who are merely satisfied.

And loyalty consultant Fred Reichheld says merely satisfying customers doesn’t lead to loyal customers.

Delight goes beyond the hospitality industry. There’s a push to add delight to the user experience of interfaces too.

But what exactly is delight? Is delight just the latest buzzword for what people are already doing?

Can we think of delight as being on the same continuum as satisfaction, or is it something different?

Is delight just exceeding expectations?

Reading articles online about delight often just give examples of exceptional customer service and exceeding expectations. Even Wikipedia’s delight entry just points to other industry publications, and nothing terribly rigorous.

To better understand whether we should focus on delighting users and customers, we should first have a good definition, then find a way to measure it effectively, and then assess the impact of delight on business performance. I’ll cover its definition here and address the latter two topics in upcoming articles.

A good place to look for a more formal definition and model for something we want to measure is the academic literature.

Like many constructs, there’s no clear definition of what delight is. I’ve reviewed a few academic articles on delight and most of them point to some foundational work done by Oliver and colleagues in 1997, which I’ll summarize here along with other models and theories on delight.

It covers disconfirmation theory, mixing primary emotions, and arousal core functions and the Kano model.

1. Disconfirmation Theory

Because delight is often considered alongside satisfaction, it makes sense to look at how we think about (and measure) satisfaction. In an earlier article, we described different ways of measuring satisfaction, and one way is using disconfirmation scales. A disconfirmation scale asks participants to rate whether a product or experience was better, the same, or worse than expected on a multi-point scale. An example is shown below.

Disconfirmation scales are based on disconfirmation theory (see Oliver, 1980), which is essentially about how our expectations are met. In disconfirmation theory, experiences can:

Meet Expectations (Positive disconfirmation)

Exceed Expectations (Confirmation)

Fall Below Expectations (Negative disconfirmation)

Under disconfirmation theory, delight can be operationalized as an unexpected positive experience. But is delight more than just exceeding expectations? Other models account for more.

2. A Mix of Two Emotions: Joy and Surprise

Whereas disconfirmation theory seems to set delight as a combination of an emotion (positive feeling) and cognition (expectations), another way to think of delight is as a combination of two emotions. Plutchik (1980) provided some foundational work in psychology at identifying eight core emotions, such as Joy, Anger, and Sadness. He arranged the emotions in a circle as part of his psycho-evolutionary framework as shown in the example below.


Under his framework, adjacent emotions represent new emotional dyads. For example, Love is the combination of Joy and Acceptance; Disappointment is the combination of Surprise and Sadness. Nonadjacent emotions can also be combined as secondary dyads, and that’s how Plutchik conceptualizes Delight, the combination of Surprise and Joy.

3. Highly Aroused Pleasantness

Similar to the two emotions from Plutchik, Russell (1979) introduced the idea of using two dimensions of activation and affect in an interestingly named “affect circumplex.” Delight is in the upper-right corner as a highly aroused positive affect. Or, delight is again a blend of pleasure and arousal.

4. Concentric Rings

A more practitioner-friendly model of delight is something proposed by Clemmer in 1990, and it’s also something you might have seen on corporate presentations when product owners are describing features.

It’s three concentric circles like the one shown below.

The innermost ring includes the basic product “must haves,” followed by “satisfiers,” and the outer ring is the delighters. For example, the 1980’s Chrysler minivan had the “must have” engines, a satisfying lot of extra room with good gas mileage, and delightful integrated cup holders (now a staple of most cars).

5. Kano Modeling

Building on the idea of concentric rings but mixing in a bit more rigor, another more familiar model of delight comes from the Kano method. I wrote about the Kano model in Customer Analytics For Dummies. Despite its popularity with practitioners, there isn’t much written about it beyond the original work.

Delighting: The feature provides extra satisfaction when present but does not harm when absent.

One-dimensional: The more of the feature the better.

Must Haves: Lack of the feature would lead to dissatisfaction.

Indifferent Attribute: A feature that customers don’t care about and doesn’t increase or decrease customer satisfaction.

Reverse: Including this feature leads to dissatisfaction.

Questionable: It’s unclear whether this feature adds or detracts from satisfaction because of conflicting responses from customers.

Under the Kano model, delight only occurs when people like when a feature is including (positive affect) but not upset if it’s not included.

For example, Wi-Fi on a plane would be considered a delighting feature (at least it was when we conducted a Kano study in 2015). Although, as is often the case, delighting features and experiences move into must-haves as soon people habituate and then expect them. We’ll cover whether it pays to delight in a future article.

Discussion and Summary

Reviewing the academic literature on customer delight, a few themes emerge:

There are competing theories of delight. There isn’t an agreed-upon definition or model of delight in the academic or professional literature. It can be hard to know how to measure delight and if you should focus resources on delight (instead of just meeting expectations) if there’s disagreement. But disagreement is a common issue for nonconcrete concepts in the social sciences (such as with loyalty and usability), so this shouldn’t be a reason not to care about delight.

It includes unexpected pleasantness. While there isn’t full agreement on how to model delight, there is clear overlap. For most theories, delight can be thought of as a positive reaction to some unexpected experience.

Joy and surprise. The foundational work by Plutchik (1980) and Russell (1979) and, to a lesser extent, the Kano model, conceptualize delight as the combination of the emotions of joy and surprise.

Is surprise really necessary? Most of the models conceptualize delight with two aspects (surprise and joy/pleasantness). It can be difficult to build surprise into service and especially product experiences. Some research (for example, by Kumar et al., 2001) has suggested that you can have delight without surprise. We’ll cover this more in a future article.

Is delight really different than satisfaction? While there’s general agreement that delight might be something more than meeting customer expectations, there’s disagreement whether it’s really that different than extreme satisfaction. In fact, while most applications of delight involve measuring the two emotions of surprise and joy, the scales look a lot like the satisfaction scales already in use. We’ll investigate different measures of delight in an upcoming article.

There are more questions and more research to come. The academic research into delight is still ongoing to address open questions such as differences from satisfaction, the need for surprise, and even whether it should include other constructs such as gratitude. And much of the delight research comes in hospitality or service experiences (amusement parks, hotels, and concerts). How much of this applies to the product designer? And does it really pay to delight, or are these gestures just seen as gimmicks that don’t affect loyalty?

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