Delaware Valley Business Owners Say It’s Simple! Put a Smile on my Lips if You Want my Word-of-Mouth

This is the third and final post in the series Brand Propheteers: 10 Ways to Get the People You Already Know to Rave About Your Firm. Click on the links to read Part One, and Part Two.

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!

Let’s Sum It Up—or Not


Boy, did I hear that word a lot in the last month. As a small business owner and a single mom, I hear your pain. I’m glad you folks are busy, because that means you are taking care of business. Readers and interviewees, I want you to consider adding one word to your busy schedule: Metrics.

We all want to increase the ranks of our brand Propheteers. More than half of the owners I spoke with said their repeat and referral customers generally made larger purchases and easier sales.

I didn’t expect exact numbers, so my questions were worded to encourage approximations. Still, I was surprised that not one owner I spoke with is breaking down their sales to determine their source. Many said they don’t know whether advertising or other efforts are pulling their weight, yet most are not asking how new customers found them. Without measurements, you won’t know if increased efforts at encouraging word-of-mouth are gaining traction.

Brand Propheteers can be powerful advocates for your company, no doubt about it. We don’t need hard numbers to remember when new customers have come to us excited because a friend or a coworker insisted they give our company a try. That pre-sold customer is a lot of fun to take care of, too. Yet very few local companies have a program in place to actively encourage repeat business, and only two that I spoke to have a system for encouraging referrals.

A simple loyalty program giving discounts or goodies to repeat customers, and a policy of thanking Propheteers for making referrals—this can be as simple as a thank-you note or as formal as a gift card toward their next purchase with you—will yield immediate and measurable results. Let your Propheteers help you grow: they’ll feed proud to have helped out, and you? You might not have to be quite so busy.

Are you actively encouraging and measuring the vital role your raving fans play?


Grand Concepts and Practical Advice


4. Positive Experience*

“Referred customers expect the fun that was relayed to them,” says Donna Rego, owner of Bellefonte Café and Trading Company. She cites their music and atmosphere at the top of the list of what gets customers to rave, after their food (of course!). Donna describes the café’s Experience as a “California vibe,” with a relaxed, family feel, and social interaction between staff and guests. “Customers feel at home here, that’s why they tell friends to try us.”

At several of the companies I visited, sound played a critical role in setting the mood. The key, according to one store owner, is “not [being] too overpowering.” What does your place sound like? Hushed can be as distracting as noisy, so find a good balance.

“Customers spread the word because of the positive Experience that they have,” says Betty Bronstein, owner of Artisans’ Gifts and Furniture. The setting, the easy flow of traffic, the colors, the mix of merchandise, and her “happy” staff, who “pick up on each customer’s needs,” create that Experience. “They’re so used to taking care of others. We try to help them feel good about treating themselves, too.”

Ed Hawkins, owner of Hawkins & Sons Custom Home Appliance Center, says his philosophy is to imagine himself as his customer, to try to see the Experience as they do. The company’s (in-home) service calls are crucial. “Our trucks… make a professional presentation right away. We’ve got clean-cut, uniformed guys who get their work done and talk to the customer when possible. Actually, our service guys are creating word-of-mouth and future sales by making that Experience great.”

Experience is all these touchpoints and more. From your telephone manner to your website, from your store to your merchandise, sights, sounds, smells, staff, and customer satisfaction—they’re all part of the Customer Experience. Take a good look all around you, and see your business from a clear Perspective. Your customers are deciding whether to rave to their friends, based on the Experience they have with you today.

*I gave no suggestions for answers to any questions, nor multiple-choice lists, by the way. This top-ten list is in order of number of mentions, or you know I’d have Experience as #1.  🙂


5. Know your customers

As I talked with Betty Bronstein, it became clear that she knows her Ideal Customer extremely well. “She’s always doing things for someone else.” Betty described the time of day she comes in, the likely first-time purchase, and what her buying habits would be as she returned on future visits. “Her time is valuable…. She comes to a small store when there are other options she could choose, because she wants information…” that an educated staff like hers can provide. “This is a very clear persona to you,” I said, and she proceeded to describe one of her less frequent visitors, the typical guy persona. “Married guys—they have a plan…. Oh, they can really shop the store—especially during the holidays.” All her descriptions were so vivid it was as if four or five Ideal Customers were walking around behind us as we talked.

Many owners outlined their Ideal Customer in perfect detail. They’ve made a study of who their customer is, and are able to describe every element of the customer’s buying habits and motivations.

In arriving a bit early for some of our interviews, I watched this attention in practice, as owners discussed children and hobbies with real customers they knew incredibly well. Carol Harvey, owner of Hansel & Gretel, says “I’m from the midwest—that’s why I’m friendly,” while acknowledging that the relaxed style she looks for in all her staff helps them learn more about their customers. Knowing a persona or two (or five!) is not a marketing “tactic” to them. For these small business owners, their understanding of the Ideal Customer comes from unhurried relationships, with people who happen to buy from them—and wouldn’t consider going anywhere else.


6. Price

I wrote a few weeks ago that I had not heard the word “recession” spoken once in these interviews. At last, one owner did wonder about changing course in a “downturn,” but by and large these owners seemed less than concerned about the greater economy’s effect on them individually.

Small business owners tend to be incredibly positive people, inclined to look for the silver lining. I think there’s even more to it than that. Many owners talked about the “advantages” they have over larger stores, and said they do not have to worry as much about price or economic woes, because their customers come to them for so many more reasons.

Still, about 1/3 of the folks I interviewed did say their prices get customers raving. Can this be true? I talked to owners of businesses at all price points. It was the owners of the more upscale companies who mentioned price!


7. Personalization/customization

Sure, you know you need a great product or service, but what makes it so remarkable that customers can’t wait to spread the word? Almost every owner I talked to said the advantage of being a small business is your ability to customize.

Helen Walker, owner of Designer Stencils, says repeat customers may not have worked with her for years. When they return, “they’ve got a 6, 10, or even 15 year old catalogue that they want to order from. We might not sell the item anymore, but we keep files of everything, so we can still put that order together for them. We’re known for that.” They love doing completely custom work, too.

Diane Abrams customizes her expert services for the needs of busy dance studios, who know they can arrange for private fittings for a group during off hours, making sending new students to Brandywine Dance a breeze. Their expertise is a draw, and their flexibility cements relationships with dance professionals.

How can you make your product or service feel exclusive? Go beyond price and selection—leave those to the big stores. Special hours, features, services, and other personalization get customers to rave about how different you are. What can your company offer to make your customer’s Experience unique?


8. Reach out to media and professionals

Many owners reach out to new groups of potential customers through charitable work and donations. They do feel it contributes to word-of-mouth referrals. For small business owners, tracking the tangible benefits of this outreach is difficult. The love of giving back inspires the folks I spoke to, though a number of owners wished they knew if anything was coming of it.

Several, including Diane Abrams and Ed Hawkins, cited business-to-business (B2B) relationships as vital to their growth. Ed says that ongoing relationships with vendor representatives and factories who know and trust him is a big source of referrals.

Helen Walker is a master of reaching out to both media and professionals. Some years ago, a freelance journalist cold-called her to ask about using their home products in an article, which later caught the eye of a magazine publisher. “It snowballed from there,” she says, and their products have been featured in top mags including Woman’s Day and Country Home. She cites accessibility as a factor in working with the media: “We send samples right out, when asked,” and have even done photo shoots in her own staff’s homes to accommodate the tight deadlines of the magazine world. Over time, trendspotters have learned to look to her company.

Helen is also active in industry shows to help chefs discover her company’s culinary product line, and counts many well-known executive pastry chefs among her clients. Working with their exacting needs—even improving products to their specifications—increases her company’s reputation immensely.

Start small, be generous and flexible, and create your own snowball effect through media and professional contacts, which Diane Abrams called “mutually beneficial business relationships.” Put the emphasis on mutually beneficial.


9. Making mistakes

Though I did not ask any questions about mistakes, nearly every owner talked about making mistakes in one area or another. Each was incredibly thoughtful and open on the subject. Staffing, and making the best possible use of the Internet, were the top areas where owners felt they’d made mistakes. Hearing successful business owners discuss mistakes again and again made me wonder whether it is a component of their success.

Betty Bronstein made the case for mistakes very well. She describes making mistakes as a positive: “When you’re making mistakes, it’s because you are changing, expanding, considering, learning.” Her confident approach to making mistakes is one reason customers feel “a part of” her company’s success.

One restaurant owner said customers like to see him “goof up. I think it’s sometimes what they tell friends about—’Yeah, they got it all wrong. Then they fixed it and we had a better time than before.’ They see us differently afterward.”

We’re all going to goof up. It’s a learning experience. Let your guard down a little as you correct your mistakes, and it can be an unexpected way to create raving fans!


10. Always Be Closing

You’ve heard it before, and here it is again. You don’t have to hit people over the head, but as you develop relationships with your customers, you should make that request for their business—and don’t forget to ask for referrals, too! Sometimes all it takes for a fan to start raving is knowing how much you’d appreciate their recommendation. We’re all busy people; we don’t always think to rave about you. Most business owners don’t do this, so this is an edge for you. Ask for the sale, ask for the referral; then you’ll be top of the mind.

Though not everyone mentioned the concept, on the way out of the interview nearly every owner found a way to solicit my business! The best solicitation was from Helen Walker, just featured in Martha Stewart Weddings: “Getting married?” she asked, pointing to her fabulous culinary stencils in use on their cover.

Sorry, Helen, not soon.


What’s Your One Great WoM Story?

The last question I asked of everyone: “What’s your one great word-of-mouth story?”

I got some excellent responses, including many who’d had customers from across the globe through a chain of WoM.

I loved the story of a couple from West Point, New York who came all the way to Betty Bronstein’s Delaware shop to buy an entire room of furnishings in one trip, because “they liked talking to [Artisans’ staff] on the phone.” Remember all your customer touchpoints. How’s your telephone service?

My favorite story came from Diane Abrams. She agreed to an interview though she seemed sure she had nothing to say on the subject of word-of-mouth referrals. “Going back to 22 years ago,” she told me of buying the business and beginning from scratch to create a devoted following. She “had to get out and fight” to grow. She personally visited all the local dance studios (wearing out her own shoe leather!). She introduced herself and her plans for the shop, and “began to develop relationships” with the teachers and owners she met. Her dance background meant they had something deeper than just business in common. Many of these people are her friends today, and she continues to accommodate studios’ special needs.

What do I love about this story? To Diane, word-of-mouth meant a customer-to-customer (C2C) opportunity that she doesn’t feel is significant to her business. B2B referrals are the source of 75% or more of her business (like a teacher recommending her store to a student)—she just doesn’t think of that as WoM.

Her one great story is a classic example of how small business can’t get along without Propheteers.

Thanks again to everyone who took a half-hour to talk with me. If you know of someone in the Brandywine Valley/ greater Philadelphia area who’d like to be interviewed for the next article in the series, send me an email to kellye (at) visionpoints (dot) net.

I gotta get a new pair of black pumps first.  🙂


Tell your one great word-of-mouth story. Tell us how you create brand Propheteers. Leave a comment about the business that gets you raving, and why. It’s your turn, and I’d love to hear from you.

Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson


Interview locally, apply lessons globally.

For more information:

Read about the articles coming up in the rest of the 2008 Interview Series

What were The Baffling Results of Wearing Holes in my Black Pumps? Find out!

Previous posts in Brand Propheteers: 10 Ways to Get the People You Already Know to Rave About Your Firm:

Part One—Golden Opportunities and “I’ll Have What She’s Having”

Part Two Is Tricky


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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