Exceeding Customer Expectations Through a Differentiated Experience Drives Loyalty and Sales

This week, we welcome Stan Phelps to the Digitally Irresistible podcast. As a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator for numerous brands, Stan delivers the message that a purposeful differentiated experience (DX) wins the hearts of employees and customers . Stan shows how differentiation ultimately boosts loyalty, retention, referrals, and bottom-line results. He also says that differentiation isn’t just about what you say, it’s about what you do and, more importantly, how you do it and why you do it. Stan leverages his collection of more than 5,000 case studies to engage his audiences with practical ideas that inspire action.

On this episode, Stan shares the I.D.E.A. framework—his step-by-step method to communicate how to adopt and implement a differentiated experience.

A Quest to Exceed Customer Expectations

Stan worked in marketing for two decades, beginning on the agency side at IMG before working for several large brands (Adidas, the New York Yankees, and PGA of America).  He later returned to the agency side to do experience marketing at Synergy. While there, he created larger-than-life experiences during the advent of social media and saw first-hand how quickly marketing was evolving.

In 2009, he had a moment of truth about the seemingly elusive goal of meeting customer expectations. This led him to collect and analyze more than 1,001 examples of companies that purposely go above and beyond to exceed customer expectations.

That journey led to his first book, “Purple Goldfish,” which is now one of more than a dozen books in a series he has written about creating a differentiated experience.

The I.D.E.A. Framework

Stan’s I.D.E.A. framework is an acronym that outlines how brands can create a differentiated experience to exceed customer expectations. Each phase of the framework involves a straightforward three-step process.


In the I.D.E.A. framework, an improved customer experience begins with the inquire phase. This phase helps you build personas of the customers you serve in three simple steps.

  1. Gather insights to best understand the customers you serve.
  2. Look at things from your customers’ perspective. Think about all the experiences along their customer journey and consider how they relate to you as a brand.
  3. Use the information you gain to uncover gaps and opportunities throughout the customer experience. A gap is a friction point where you can improve a specific part of the customer experience to better meet customer expectations. Opportunities are key moments within the customer experience that you can elevate to create a truly amazing experience.

Stan sums up this phase with a quote from the late Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, who said, “There are only two sources of competitive advantage: the ability to learn more about our customers faster than the competition and the ability to turn that learning into action faster than the competition.”


The design phase provides an outline for identifying the parts of the customer journey you want to address and how you plan to improve them.

  1. First, set your focus on what you plan to address. Identify the most critical gaps you want to fix as well as the most promising opportunities to elevate the customer experience.
  2. Once you’ve set your focus, begin asking big questions to explore different ways you could address the gaps and opportunities. What would you do if you had a year to make the improvements? What if you had a million dollars? What if you had 10 minutes and $10, how would you implement your changes?
  3. Then brainstorm and design ideas that address your gaps and opportunities. Think big while also grounding your ideas in reality. Consider how other industries have solved similar issues.


Once you have developed some ideas, evaluate the best ones on your list.

  1. The evaluate phase begins internally to ensure you have the capability to deliver on the idea. Look within the organization to answer questions such as the resources it would take to implement the idea, whether you have the organizational bandwidth to deliver on the idea, and if the benefits outweigh the costs associated with the idea.
  2. Once you’ve assessed internal capabilities, begin the external validation process. Test your ideas in a focus group, do surveys, or run them by a customer advisory board to validate that your opinions about the ideas align with what the customer thinks of them. There’s often a disconnect between what we think and what customers actually feel; external validation strengthens your plan before you allot resources to the next step.
  3. The third and final step is the pilot phase. Test your solution in a specific market or in a limited fashion to validate its effectiveness. If the pilot is successful then you’re ready for the last stage.


Advance is where the rubber hits the road—where you begin large-scale rollout of the plan.

  1. Incorporate the feedback you learned from the pilot and achieve buy-in. Secure the budget and resources you need to effectively implement the idea.
  2. Plan the rollout by training your team and creating the processes and procedures to carry out the idea.
  3. Determine how you’re going to measure improvement to the experience on an ongoing basis. This critical step takes you back to the inquire phase to ensure you continue to achieve what you set out to do.

Taking a Holiday With a Differentiated Experience

One example of the I.D.E.A. framework in action comes from the hospitality industry. An all-inclusive vacation group that offered week-long vacation packages for guests wanted to identify the gaps and opportunities in their customer experience to make it the best it could be.

Utilizing the I.D.E.A. framework, they stepped into the customers’ shoes and went on a holiday. They found that guests loved the week-long experience, but the final day of the vacation presented opportunities for improvement. Guests would check out of the hotel with time to spare before they departed the resort. During this waiting period, they felt forgotten and ignored—they no longer had full access to the facilities and the staff had moved on to a new group of guests.

Based on that insight, the group set out to design a better experience for these departing guests. They knew the last day of the trip left a lasting impression and they needed to make it the best it could be. After brainstorming and assessing ideas, they implemented one called “Departure Beach.” This was a lounge they created within the resort where departing guests could enjoy a designated experience just for them on their last day of vacation. This capped a fantastic week-long experience and left them with a positive impression that was worth repeating.

A Differentiated Experience That Drives Loyalty

By methodically implementing an organized approach to elevating the customer experience, brands can gain insight into the customer journey and identify ways in which they can exceed customer expectations. By inquiring to know more about your customers and their experience and designing, evaluating, and advancing ideas to make those experiences the best they can be, brands can create remarkable experiences that customers want to share.

What Stan Does for Fun

For Stan, golf has been the silver lining of the pandemic. After giving up the game for several years, Stan reignited his interest in golf with his two teenage sons over the past few years. Spending quality time together, being outside, exercising, and immersing themselves in nature adds to its appeal.

To learn more about Stan and the I.D.E.A. framework, connect with him on LinkedIn (#the1299), Twitter, and on his website at https://stanphelps.com.

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