Never Underestimate the Power of Word of Mouth

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Like most start-up CEOs, I’m always concerned about how to acquire new customers. We all know that finding new customers fuels a company’s growth — but it’s what you spend to find them that can ultimately define the success or failure of a company. And there’s certainly no lack of dials to turn or levers to pull. Whether it’s investing in online marketing channels such as search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) and social media; exploring new segments; or even looking offline with a billboard on highway 101, every business owner is manically focused on how to grow his or her company.

rivet-2-4As most of us know, there is no better source of finding new customers than through word of mouth (WOM). The power of one customer telling other potential customers how great a product or service is can do wonders for a company. And, WOM doesn’t require a huge marketing investment; it’s got potential to scale big time (think social media and house parties), and ultimately can become your most effective marketing channel (we all trust our friends, right?). The idea that existing customers can serve as “free” mouthpieces to market your company to the rest of the world is incredibly enticing, but it also requires a committed investment in your customer experience.

Emotionally motivating existing customers to the point where they serve as these “free” mouthpieces doesn’t happen by chance. It requires a deep commitment to your customer and an “all-in” investment in their experience with your company. In order to deliver a phenomenal experience, companies must be laser focused on knowing their customers and must be convinced that the company exists in order to serve their customers. Sound easy? Not really. But there are some basic underlying principles that you can focus on to deliver an exceptional experience and help grow your company through WOM.
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  1. Know Thy Customer: It all starts with actually knowing who your customers are, what they like, how they like to receive information and how they like to interact. It’s not enough to simply spit out the demographic and firmographic basics about your customers. You have to get to know them, kind of like getting to know your best friend or spouse, and truly understand what motivates and inspires your customers. And to obtain this information, you’re going to have to put in the effort to constantly speak to and interact with customers. Interview customers, conduct focus groups, distribute surveys, engage in sales calls — you and everyone at your company must focus on getting to know your customer as much as you possibly can.
  2. Differentiate Your Touchpoints: Providing an exceptional experience requires delivering the unexpected across all the various touchpoints with each and every customer. Whether it’s the small details in the packaging, the heart-warming customer care, or even a personal call from the CEO to ensure satisfaction with each customer — every touchpoint is an opportunity for the company to deliver that unexpected delight that will lead to WOM. Start by identifying every possible way an average customer might interact with your company and list all the different things you can do to “surprise and delight” customers at each of those interactions.
  3. Personalize the Experience: Everybody is talking about personalization, especially in the e-commerce world, but few companies are truly making an attempt to personalize the entire customer experience. By utilizing existing customer data, constantly researching how customers interact with your company and by taking the time to actually listen and engage with your customers (and yeah, this may mean actually taking time to get to know your customers), you’ll naturally start to identify how you can personalize the experience. The key here is making sure that you maintain flexibility and empower employees with the ability to make decisions.
  4. Measure Effectiveness: It’s hard to make changes to the customer experience if you really have no idea what is or is not working. Before you start beefing up your focus on the customer experience, make sure that you’ve built in processes to effectively measure the impact of what you’re doing. Whether that’s conducting a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey every quarter (by the way, I highly recommend measuring NPS), following up with customers individually to garner insights, or conducting analysis of feedback using services such as Salesforce or Uservoice (a great tool for analyzing feedback gathered from your website), you must build in processes to measure your customer experience efforts. With this knowledge and a better understanding of your customer experience, you’ll know what actions to take to improve and innovate moving forward.
  5. Monitor your Competitors:I knowwe all monitor our competitors; we’re always keeping tabs on what our biggest competitors and rivals are doing. But are you focusing on what they’re doing with their customers?Are you ordering from your biggest competitors (when possible) and seeing how they’ve changed their experience? Are you submitting Help requests, calling their customer service reps and sending emails to “help@” to get a sense of how your competitors are responding to customers? If not, then you’re really not keeping good tabs on your competitors. I know it sounds like a huge pain, but I can assure you that this effort alone will provide some amazing insights into what you can do better or differently.
  6. Customer Service as a Strategic Asset: Every CEO I know emphasizes the importance of customer service on the overall experience. But very few treat customer service as a strategic asset to the company. In fact, most CEOs view customer service as a cost-center rather than a function that can drive new customers and revenue. In order for customer service to truly add value and differentiate the entire experience, a company must adopt a “customer-first” philosophy as part of its core DNA. A passion for serving customers, not simply transacting with them, has to be a priority and must be instilled in every employee.
  7. Hire the Right People: This is a pretty obvious principle that is part of every “what’s critical to your success” type of answer. But when I’m interviewingcandidates, I ask a ton of questions that measure their aptitude to serve others and to truly want to help not only other employees, but every customer and potential customer as well. Employees who only look out for themselves or put themselves ahead of their team or customers, aren’t going to be a great fit. If you are truly committed to delivering a phenomenal customer experience and driving WOM, you must hire the right people who can thrive in your customer-focused culture.

rivet-2-8It’s absolutely mind boggling how many marketing channels exist today. Seriously. And tryingto prioritize every single marketing channel is next to impossible, and not recommended, for even the most well funded startups or profitable businesses. If you’re going to focus on absolutely crushing a single marketing tactic, I suggest focusing on delivering the best experience for your customers. By focusing on a phenomenal customer experience, you’ll not only get to know, and learn from, your customers, you’ll also stand proudly as your customers choose to voluntarily market, sell and promote your company to others.

Today’s customer acquisition practices, particularly for e-commerce companies,have evolved — or devolved — back to the basics. It’s no longer just about providing a customer chat interface or extending an offer for free shipping. It’s “service with a smile” and a personal touch that customers want — but don’t always find when they’re staring at the computer screen. Breaking through that barrier and reaching through the screen to personalize the experience is not easy or impossible — but it is becoming more and more important for those companies looking to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

jl— John Lusk is a serial entrepreneur; the author of the best-selling book, The MouseDriver Chronicles: The True-Life Adventures of Two First-Time Entrepreneurs; and a graduate of The Wharton School. He is currently the Founder and CEO of Rivet & Sway, an e-commerce company that sells designer eyeglasses to women. Lusk can be reached atjohn@rivetandsway.com or 888-900-4522.

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