It’s no surprise to any of us that we remember situations that have exceeded our expectations.

It’s that unexpected bit of delight or reward that we experienced at a, now favourite restaurant, in seeing an entertaining movie, or even while doing a bit of retail shopping.

For most patients, a “trip to the healthcare practitioner’s clinic” doesn’t always make the “pleasantly-surprised-and-delighted” list. While a practitioner’s clinic is likely to deliver clinical excellence, the seemingly simple ingredient of surprise, as in customer service excellence is often neglected.

But, when the clinic experience is unexpectedly exceptional, the patient satisfaction level goes through the roof, word-of-mouth and patient referrals often follow. The element of surprise is not difficult to include in the patient process, and it can be a powerful tool for healthcare practitioner marketing.

No doubt you know all of this intuitively. The most successful stores, restaurants and sales people have long recognised the business value of “the WOW factor.” The “pleasantly surprised” quality or feeling that reaches out to us from clever commercials, cool electronic gadgets or unique events.

One thing, however, that may be surprising about “surprise” is that its roots and rationale are not whimsical, but firmly rooted in science and research. The Harvard Business Review published an excellent reference article in support of the idea that “surprise is probably the most powerful marketing tool of all.” In evidence, the article offered five reasons why and each is a lesson that’s easily applied to healthcare marketing.

Surprise is addictive. Surprise is like crack for your brain. Scientists at Emory and Baylor used MRIs to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli. The reward pathways in the brain responded most strongly to the unpredictable, suggesting that people are designed to crave the unexpected.

Surprise changes behaviour. Unexpected events drive learning. Thinking in terms of desired consumer behaviour can unlock innovative strategies. When developing an advertising campaign, we are often too focused on the question of “What do we need to say?” Instead, we should focus on “What expectations do our customers and prospects hold, and how can we turn those on their head?”

Surprise is cheap. Rather than attempt to beat the competition with epic production budgets and media plans, marketers should think about how to cram surprising brand stories into the smallest space possible.

Surprise turbocharges emotions. Psychologist Robert Plutchik’s psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion classifies our feelings into primary emotions. Surprise appears to amplify whatever you’re feeling. Combine happiness with surprise, and you hit the upper register of the feeling-good scale.

Surprise fuels passionate relationships. The principles apply to business relationships. Marketers typically spend the bulk of their creative energy making themselves look attractive to potential customers. It’s easy to forget you need to look sexy and charming to your current ones to keep the spark alive.

How do you inject surprise and delight in patient encounters and (otherwise clinical) office visits? What can you do to break the routine and exceed expectations? Not surprisingly, there’s no standard formulary or procedural guidelines for “surprise and delight.” The answers found in your own creative application of principle of science.