A long time ago in the 1930s. Hollywood actress and icon Greta Garbo appeared in just twenty eight films when she retired at the young age of 36. Throughout the rest of her long life – she lived until she was 84 – she shunned publicity and lived a private life. She famously became known for the phrase: “I just want to be left alone.”* In today’s highly-connected world, privacy has in fact become a luxury, and it seems that it is a privilege that only the extremely wealthy can afford.

You may be asking why an article about customer service in a business magazine chats about a long-gone Hollywood actress, but this was exactly what went through my mind when a client recently asked me how to add value for customers who are literally in the top 1% of earners worldwide. The company deals only with customers right at the top end of the luxury goods market, billionaires that live in mansions, have a fleet of luxury cars, and perhaps even own their own jet plane.

“What do we give them?” he asked, exasperated, “A diamond in a glass of champagne?”

Before answering his question, I told him that his quandary was exactly what many businesses struggle with in today’s hectic customer environment. It is the wrong question, because in an attempt to efficiently deal with our customers, we look for instant solutions to create customer loyalty. Gifts and discounts is one every easy way to do this, but it cheapens the relationship. When my bank or supermarket keeps nagging me to join their points programme, I prefer to get no points but better service experiences that are personalised.

Don’t get me wrong here: there is no doubt, especially in times like these that customers do respond to anything which makes them feel they are getting good value for money. But my argument is always this: if you have to give away stuff in order for your customers to support your business, then you have a big problem. Apart from the fact that it costs your company money, it won’t take long before someone else will come and offer them something more attractive, and their loyalty proves to be fickle and mobile.

So what is the alternative? If you look at what your business offers, right at the centre of everything is your product – what customers actually pay for. If this is where you look to add value, even if you offer something quite spectacular, your advantage is usually short-lived before others imitate. I remember that my dear old dad got really excited in about 1963 because his new Morris Minor came with indicators! Now we all take them for granted, but it was a big thing then. (Today, Fiat offers an espresso machine built into your dashboard as a standard feature.)

So at the next level you can focus on service and delivery systems. I remember when going to the bank meant getting on the bus to town on a Saturday morning – but make sure you get there before they close at 11:00 a.m. Then the banks started opening satellite branches in suburbs. Then this most amazing thing called an ATM was installed all over the place, and now you can do your banking on the kitchen table at 11 o’clock at night, or even on your smart phone on the other side of the world. Guess what? Can you think of a bank that doesn’t offer these facilities to its customers? All imitate the others.

So what is left? Experiences! Personal, memorable, exciting, “I-would-never-have-done-this-myself” experiences. The essence of a great customer experience is that it arouses some emotions in your customers, or that it engages their senses in some way, or both.

At the simplest level, maybe they are grateful that you noticed that this isn’t their first visit. Or maybe they are surprised by the fact that you remembered that their kids just matriculated, or they went overseas on holiday, or they prefer diabetic jam, or hate waiting in queues. Or maybe you paid them a nice compliment that makes them feel good about themselves. Or perhaps they smelt the most delicious odours of fresh bread being baked in your store, or saw a beautiful display of broccoli sprayed with a water mist to make it look like it’s just been picked at dawn. Or maybe you delivered a whole bunch of party stuff to their house when they decided at the last minute to throw a party.

However, with a little bit of extra effort, you can also create emotional experiences which are entertaining, engaging, and boundary-breaking. “Wow!” experiences that they will never forget – and will tell dozens of other people about. There are always some things that seem to work better than others: what is unusual that they never knew about? What is absolutely outrageous or remarkable that you share with them? What is so hilarious that it will bring a smile to even the biggest cynic’s face? What gives them a deep sense of satisfaction or reassurance so that they don’t have to stay awake at night worrying?

You can create specific events, like shows and demonstrations, or inviting a celebrity to your business, and invite them personally to attend. Or you can design special spaces or exciting displays within your store that they will be attracted to. (Some companies have designed special kiddy play areas. I’m still waiting for a “Bored Husbands’ Zone.”) Or perhaps you can use unusual media to get your messages across. (One company did a special promotion by sticking a promotional message on the back of a R5 coin, and spreading these around parking lots – even near their competitors’ stores. In another business, they arranged a treasure hunt within the store for their customers.)

If you do this, always give them something to take away with them as a memento, and keep it fresh. Retail consultant Rob Sadler, who once ran the busiest Marks and Spencer store in the UK on Oxford Street in London, told me they used to change the window displays a few times a day so that people passing buy wouldn’t get bored.

So what do you give a man who has everything? Get to know them well and ask yourself “What can we do that they would really surprise them – and which they would probably never have even considered doing for themselves?”

* These words, in fact, were a line from one of her earlier films, Grand Hotel