Here’s a simple yet important small business lesson: There is a distinction between customer service and the customer experience. Customer service is what people expect, but the customer’s experience is what gets talked about. That distinction is important to know, because it’s the experience that leverages word of mouth; the most powerful form of marketing.

That’s very different from where many business owners place their emphasis. Great customer service gets a laser focus in small business America, and that’s not necessarily bad. Customer service is what determines customer satisfaction. No business wants a mad customer spreading negative comments on Facebook about bad service. The emphasis on customer service eliminates complaints and horror stories, but it does nothing to spark word-of-mouth evangelism. So, what does?

Conversational specifics

Think about the word-of-mouth conversations you hear, and even spread, about local brands. They are not filled with abstractions like,“They have great customer service,” and “People who care.” Instead, word-of-mouth conversation is filled with specifics: “And then they had this magician come out, and he did a card trick, while picking Paul’s pocket!”

Those conversational specifics are stories: memories being re-told by the customer. And that’s the big thing you should know. Customer experiences are a collection of memories. And the experiences that get re-told, the remarkable ones are filled with extraordinary memories — what I call magic moments.

People need something to talk about if they’re going to talk about you, some specific memory that they will enjoy retelling to their friends, family and co-workers. Your customers don’t want to talk about average, boring stuff. They want to be admired and envied, so they want to talk about magic moments in their experience with your business.

If you don’t have any magic moments, it’s unlikely you’ll earn word-of-mouth recommendations. It’s time you added at least one magic moment to your customer’s experience.

Creating your magic moments

First, understand what it is. A magic moment is a pre-planned, out-of-the-ordinary memory that you build into the customer’s experience. That moment has to be unexpected, something that is unanticipated in a normal customer experience.

If it’s already being done by another business, don’t do that. The other thing is that the moment must delight the customer. When the moment happens, the customer smiles or says, “Wow!” The formula is simple: Unexpectedness + Delight = Magic.

Next, you have to determine where to put that magic moment. I suggest you choose the most emotional part of your customer interaction.

When is your customer most emotionally engaged with your business? You should also place that magic moment late in the experience when possible. You want it to be fresh on your customers’ mind as they leave your business, and you want your customers ripe and ready to tell that story.

It takes some planning and careful thinking to create a magic moment. That’s why so many businesses settle for good customer service.

Resist the temptation to settle for being a bullet point in the customer’s day. Be magic, make a memory and earn word of mouth conversation.

Jay Ehret is founder and dean of marketing know-how at, a marketing education resource center for entrepreneurs and small business owners.