Delaware Valley Businesses Are Rocking the Basics to Stay Ahead and Grow: Can You?

This post is the second of three in the series Brand Propheteers: 10 Ways to Get the People You Already Know to Rave About Your Firm. To read Part One, click here.

Propheteer: The very best driver of word-of-mouth for your company: a cross between prophet (someone who preaches) and volunteer. VisionPoints’ term for the raving fans we want you to have more of!


Just How Big a Deal Are Brand Propheteers?

Handwritten sign outside a local café: “You can use 90% of the statistics to mean anything you want 50% of the time.”

In that spirit, three statistics compiled from these interviews. (Note: not every interviewee answered each question, and some could not give numbers, but rather descriptions like “most,” which don’t fit into my calculator too well. These numbers are based only on folks who answered with… numbers.)

Approximately what percentage of your customers are repeat business: 75%

Of these, what percentage would probably describe themselves as fans: 76%

What percentage of your customers are referred to you: 12%

Though unscientific, you can see that these businesses rely heavily on their fans, both to drive their amazing repeat business (estimates ranged from a low of 20% to a high of 95%) and to advertise their companies for free through word-of-mouth—almost half their new business comes from referrals!

If repeat and referral business is so critical, why is most effort and money spent on attracting new customers? Because we know how to place an ad. We know how to measure its results. It’s relatively easy, if we can afford it.

To convert customers into brand Propheteers, we’ll have to dig deeper and work smarter. Small business owners don’t always know what actions they can take to encourage customers to rave about their firm. Many of these talkative folks said they couldn’t tell me anything about the subject! Actions speak louder than words, and when it came right down to it, there are 10 methods these folks use every day to grow their businesses through word-of-mouth. You can, too.

(I know, it’s amazing. If there had only been 9 Ways, or 13.2 Ways, I would have had to reprint a whole bunch of stuff. Thank goodness!)


Top 3: The Basics Are Very Tricky

In the top three ways to get customers and others to rave about you, you’ll find no surprises. Then what’s so tricky? Everybody mentioned at least one of these in their own “top three.” For some this was about all that needed to be said. These are the price of doing business (PODB). Everybody knows the basics, and everybody’s trying to achieve them. That’s what makes them tricky. How many times a week do you hear “service is our specialty” or “the difference is our people”? Blech.

To make these three methods part of your phenomenal success story,
1. Stop saying it. Nobody believes you.
2. Do it like your business depends on it. It does.

Three things everyone is trying for. You’ll have to be creative and beyond exceptional, or local business owners who do understand “exceptional” are going to grab all your customers. Here’s how they’ll do it.


1. Service

Almost every person I interviewed cited exceptional service as one of the top three ways to get customers and others to rave about you. Every owner mentioned the word “friendly” at least once during our interview. This would be pretty *yawn* except for one thing. Even though I knew I was repeating myself, I found over and over I had scribbled in my notes: “Smiling staff.” “Genuine.” “Helpful.” “Friendly.” There is a big difference between lip service and reaching that ideal. Businesses that make it are not faking it.

Ed Hawkins, owner of Hawkins & Sons Custom Home Appliance Center, could not say enough about what involved, informed staff will do for your company. In the store, his sales staff “Go out of their way” for every customer, especially first time buyers: “They’re testing you, in a way,” with a small purchase that often leads to a larger purchase if they like how it turns out. For repair customers the warehouse may sometimes find just a single screw to maintain an aging appliance. Customers always remember this special treatment from their small, family-owned company. It’s the edge his smaller company has, even as big-box companies offer hours no little store wants to compete with. Hawkins does a large volume of service calls, and their exceptional care when arriving at the customer’s house “helps us stand out. People really like how we treat their home.” Little touches, like covers to protect floors from their boots, get remembered. “People remember that we were there exactly when we said we’d be there. If there’s a snowstorm or something… no, even then, we’ll be there. Our service is about trying to make things easier for the customer.” For Ed, keeping promises is the number one way to encourage word-of-mouth. “Customers can trust us.”

Several owners mentioned having service that makes shopping “fun” for the customer, and said smaller businesses win customers based on their ability to “interact personally” with prospective buyers. Betty Bronstein, owner of Artisans’ Gifts and Furniture, cited the greeting her staff gives as the top way to be remembered and raved about later. It’s true; their greeting is a special detail.

To serve future Propheteers: Be helpful, be present, yet don’t be pushy. Be respectful of the time customers are spending with you, and make it a delight. Make keeping promises an integral part of your Customer Service.


2. Staff

Diane Abrams, owner of Brandywine Dance Shoppe, says her sales staff, who are all experienced dancers like herself, understand the customer’s needs intuitively and use their expertise to customize their Experience. They also “give [her] fresh Perspective,” and keep her from getting bored!

One offbeat tip from Diane: “Get rid of the chair.” Seeing employees sitting down gives customers the wrong impression, she says, and makes staff feel lazier, too.

For Carol Harvey, owner of Hansel & Gretel, an upscale children’s clothing boutique, staffing is both the essential element and the most difficult to control. She says her “friendly staff is what gets the customer to rave,” but when I asked, “How do you know who will click with your customers?” she responded, “It’s the hardest thing to know, who will work for them. There’s no way to tell.”

On that issue there was no consensus. I asked the question of nearly every owner, and got answers ranging from Carol’s “no way to tell” to “I absolutely know when they’ve got that spark we need.”

Betty Bronstein described her staff as the ideal we all look for: “They’re my biggest fans. They want me to succeed.” She puts a lot of effort into achieving that, not only through careful interviewing looking for the “happy” people she needs at her store, but also through education and nurturing of employees’ natural abilities once they’re hired.

Ed Hawkins seconded this, saying that he does everything he can to get Hawkins’ products into employees’ homes so they can live with the merchandise, to have a first-hand understanding and love of the lines his company offers. Ed and several others have staff who have been with them for many years because of their hands-off leadership. “I used to tell them every little detail. Now they know I trust them to treat everyone like they’re a family member.”

One owner said his staff are “impeccable” in dress and manner: “They let the customer know right away that they’ve come to the right place.” Impeccable is a great ideal. Aim for it.

Look for impeccable, happy people, who want to grow with you and your company.


3. Excellent merchandise

Let’s admit it: Quality is about as PODB as you can get. These successful business owners have more than just quality products and services. They have highly specialized businesses, providing a narrow range of goods to a customer they know well and are constantly checking in with, through their excellent service. They know who comes in, how often, what special interests their customers have, and how to cater to those needs through what they offer. They listen; they aim for an Ideal Customer who they understand well; they readily change and adapt to serve that customer better.

Restaurant owners I spoke with, naturally listed their fresh, quality food as one of the top ways to get raves. Donna Rego, owner of the Bellefonte Café, went further: Her repeat customers are there for “slow food, not fast food,” as first-time guests might be.

When I spoke with retailers, many felt strongly about having “fresh” merchandise. According to Carol Harvey, “repeat customers come in on a very regular basis, just to check out new merchandise.” High-quality merchandise you won’t find at a department store is a top priority for her in satisfying her Propheteers, many of whom are “customers for life.” When I asked her about fans of Hansel & Gretel, she smiled. “I thought you were going to say ‘family.’ That’s how our customers are. They’re way beyond fans.”

Betty Bronstein is a crusader for her customers’ needs, and sees her eclectic mix as a top driver of WoM. She is passionate about having a changing selection—“not changing often enough is insulting to our customers. Their time is valuable. They may drive a long way to get here. I can’t stand it when I go into a shop and nothing’s changed since the last time I was there! They didn’t respect my time, and I know there’s nothing to come back again for.”


The Measure of Raving Fans: Is Your Company Capable of Creating a Riot?

At Hansel & Gretel, Carol Harvey told me, “We’re the last of the old boutiques. When this one goes out of business there’s going to be a riot.”

To create customers for life like Hansel & Gretel has: Be the first of the next generation of “old boutiques.”

These owners agree, that repeat and referral customers stay longer and are more satisfied with their purchases, like Donna Rego’s customers. Several also felt that repeat and referral customers make larger purchases, and are easier to sell to. Ed Hawkins says customers who arrive through referrals are “pre-sold,” and called these “the nicest sales.” He loves it when he sees returning customers talking to new shoppers, creating word-of-mouth sales for them right in the store.

Basics, yes, but not so easy to achieve. Stand-out service, staff who click with your customers, and a product or service that’s worthy of a trip to see you. These Delaware Valley small business owners still struggle to stay ahead on the basics every day.

Infuse your personal style into your business while delivering an Experience tailored to far exceed your customers’ expectations. Focus 110% on their point of view, and create delight.

How do you measure up on the basics? What will it take for your company to be the first of the next generation of “old boutiques”?


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson


Let’s sum it up—if we can! Read on: Part Three – Grand Concepts, Practical Advice, and the One Great WoM Story


Special thanks:

Diane Abrams, Brandywine Dance Shoppe, 3617 Silverside Road, Wilmington, DE

Betty Bronstein, Artisans’ Gifts and Furniture, 2113 Concord Pike, Wilmington, DE

Carol Harvey, Hansel & Gretel, 3603 Silverside Road, Wilmington, DE

Ed Hawkins, Hawkins & Sons Custom Home Appliance Center, 400 New Road, Elsmere, DE

Donna Rego, Bellefonte Café and Trading Company, 804 Brandywine Boulevard, Wilmington, DE

Helen Walker, Designer Stencils, 2503 Silverside Road, Wilmington, DE