Bugs, Hiccoughs, Flaws, and Foibles

At least 25% of my day today was spent dealing with things that don’t work. From buggy computer programs to inane telephone service to flawed websites, this day was filled with This Is Broken signs. I can’t begin to tell you all the truly bad Customer Experience I had to deal with today. It was painful.

At some point I started musing on this trauma. What I wouldn’t give to have someone deal with this for me….

Well, come to think of it, there probably are several ways I could pay someone to deal with this stuff for me, including handing piddly work off to someone else, or if it’s a constant issue, adding staff or outsourcing. There may even be small businesses hoping to catch some of the “don’t you wish your life were easier” crowd.

Would I pay money to have these problems whisked away?

No, probably not. Why not?

I think I’m awesome enough to handle these situations

I don’t see how many problems there will be at the start

By the time the scope of today’s issues is obvious, I feel I’ve invested too much of my time to let go of control

Though my time is worth a good amount of money, I find it easier and quicker to part with the time than to explain to someone else how to solve my problems

I see today’s issues as temporary and attached to today (when in reality I may spend 5% or more of my time every single week dealing with similar problems I could have someone else fix)

I’m cheap (in terms of business expenses)

So some problems, I solve by messing around until I find the solution. Some, I solve by searching the Internet for answers. Some, I solve by politely, painstakingly, making my case again and again on the phone until I am speaking with the person who can make things right. Some, I decide aren’t that important and I let them go unsolved.

What’s the Maximum Customer Experience lesson here?

If you’re in business, you need people in pain like I was today, whether the pain is “I need to drive this nail into my wall” (solution: hammer) or “I can’t get UPS to listen to me” (solution: hammer for my head? or FedEx?).

You need people in pain.

The problem is, a lot of people in pain don’t want to need you. They’ll muddle and suffer and give up. I’m not talking about losing out after a presentation, I’m talking about never getting asked. Maybe you’ll flit through their mind, maybe you aren’t yet top-of-the-mind and they won’t think of you until after the problem is solved (or ever!). It’s a dilemma for people in every type of business.

Your goal is to create and promote a Solution that addresses the reluctant customer. That guy with the “why not” bullet points, (s)he’s your classic reluctant customer.

Two ways to talk to the reluctant customer:

Show that the pain is greater, more acute, longer lasting than the prospect believes;

Make your Ideal Solution seem smaller, easier, quicker, cheaper than existing solutions.

Turning those “why not”s upside-down is how you do it. Can you show me I’m not awesome enough? That fixing one problem on my own may uncover a dozen more serious problems? That D-I-Y won’t fix the long-term issues? That you’re easy, quick, not as expensive as using my time and limited expertise to deal with things myself?

Ever get stuck fixing a time-suck problem, and wish you could pay someone to deal with it?

Think about it now—if you really wished that, you could have.

So if you chose to fight it out yourself, what were your reasons? What can you add to our “why not” list?


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson

Time to Get Off Your A**, It’s a Commitment Post

Why is everyone more excited to get customers from around the globe than from around the bend?

I’m not objecting to far-flung clients, for me or for you. Of course not. Especially not if you were just about to shoot me an email.   🙂

I’ve got a thought, though. Is “global” the new word for “not ready to commit fully”? The way “home business” used to mean “not committed to job-hunting”?

What is “I’ll take customers from anywhere”? Is there something wrong with taking customers from your home town, state, or region? Is it a fear of coming in contact with customers face-to-face? Is it fear of specializing?

Because if it is, then commit. Shout out loud, in your own backyard, about your business. Local is the new global, and we small business owners are poised to re-take our communities if we’d just stop shying away from f2f.

Get people you know (I mean “know,” as in “are acquainted with in the real world”) to sound the trumpets for you. They’ll do it best, because they care. And you? Get out. Especially you work-from-home entrepreneurs who are always saying how isolating your work is. Find local clients—take a meeting with them—and get out of the house!

Let the mega-companies fight over global business in this lurching and wrenching economy. Do what they can’t do, my small-business-owner friends, and do it well.

Shake hands.

Can you think of one move you could make this week to promote your business locally? Please share in the comments, so others can use our ideas in their own home towns!


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson

Undercapitalization is NOT the biggest reason startups fail

Starting a small business, but you haven’t got a year or two of working capital saved up?

Join the crowd. Many small businesses don’t have a financial cushion, and we hear repeatedly that not being ready to finance several months of losses (or more) is why they fail. Don’t you believe it!

Truth Hurts:

Just because people are always telling you, “You should do this for a living,” does not mean you should.

Has anyone ever said, “… and I’d like to be your first paying client”? No? Then don’t listen to your friends, coworkers, or your brother. These people are admiring your talents, but not offering to get you off the ground.

I do want to sound harsh here, because you want to know the truth now, before you sink your cash in to float the losses. The biggest reason why startups fail is… Nobody wants what they are selling.


There is a bit more to it than that.

Nobody wants what they are selling…

  • In the current location
  • In the atmosphere created
  • In this style, size, package
  • From the particular salespeople
  • At this time (or with really bad luck, in this era)
  • At this price
  • With their expectations

Any or all of these elements (and many more) can contribute. Bottom line: Right now, nobody wants the widget, nobody wants the service.


If it’s your startup, how can you save the business?

1. Decide what YOU want: until you know your own mind, don’t be surprised if customers won’t come along for the ride

2. Determine what the customer is trying to tell you about what he or she wants (better yet—needs)

3. Look at the list above: which elements can you change to bring your vision together with the customer’s? Can you:

Change locations?

Reconsider your firm’s name?

Update the look of your place? Change the look of your logo, your printed materials or Internet presence?

Vary the offering? Fancier? Simpler? More? Less?

Bring your staff along on this journey? Is it their attire or their attitude that needs changing?

Is your timing off in a simple way, such as needing to serve breakfast and lunch in an urban-office area instead of dinner, or in a big way, like no one seems ready for what you offer? Can customer education bridge the time warp and bring customers forward?

Raise or lower prices?

Bring expectations in line with offerings, by continuing to fine-tune each element?

4. Bring it all together: your Vision, their needs, your execution of each aspect of the business, until the customer wants what you are selling.

So simple? Not quite. This is hard work. An investment of time, money, and oh, yes, really hard work. Get help with this if you can. C’mon, did you think you could save your business in an afternoon?

It’s Never About You. It’s About Them.

Whoever first called quitting your full-time job with a happy, auto-deposited salary to become an entrepreneur “working for yourself” was full of baloney. Yes, folks, baloney.

Are you a small business owner or a wannabe? Let me introduce you to your new boss—the customer.

If you think your old boss was demanding, unpredictable, and never around when you needed her, boy, is owning your own small business gonna open your eyes.

The business of doing business is not as simple as having a talent or a skill that some folks admire. If it were, I’d be a woodworker, a genealogist, a (full-time) writer, a comic, a therapist, a miniaturist, a masseuse, and a restaurateur. I’ve worked in some of those industries, but most have been suggested to me by folks who admire a skill I use in my off-time (I LOVE my hobbies).

You CAN put what you love together into a business that fulfills others’ needs, but the focus really has to be on those “others.” I can’t emphasize that enough!

Love using your talents, in a way that others need and can relate to? Then you won’t be digging nearly so far into your “working capital” to get your business working.

How does a great new business hook you? What do they have to do, to get you to want what they’re selling—when you managed fine without them before?


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson

P.S. It’s never about me, it’s about you. If you’ve been around since the beginning of the MCE Blog, I’d just like to tell you that you are reading your 200th post. Congratulations on your tenacity, and thank you for creating an amazing community here. I’m blessed with the most wonderful readers on the web. I’m so glad you want what I’m selling! Do continue to share MCE with others, and together we’ll fuel even more ideas to grow your business in the next 200.

Have You Heard the One About the Emperor and his New Clothes?

See, the Emperor knew some tailors. They created artificial buzz. It worked for a little while, but then it fell apart. There was a backlash, as sometimes happens in these situations. I don’t want you to create artificial buzz. I want you to create real, organic, oh-my-gosh-I-love-their-stuff buzz, the kind that often starts small, grows, and lasts, but yes—you can learn how from a guy who engineers buzz for a living.

On Tuesday I said that Dave Balter does not want to sell his book. The secret, you know now, is that he wants people to talk about his business. Why? Talking about BzzAgent demonstrates his firm’s skill at doing what they promise to do—creating buzz. Without forcing anyone to buy a thing.

How can you steal this secret?

You don’t produce Word-of-Mouth for a living. So don’t worry, you don’t have to get Seth Godin to talk about you.

What does your firm promise to do?

Make a better muffin?

Write thrilling ad copy?

Get carpets so clean you could eat off ‘em?

Give kids an awesome month of summer camp?

Okay, take a deep breath

Give it away.

The stakes for you are not like for Dave Balter’s company, so you are not going to give away the whole summer break. Give away a day at your camp.

Give away a muffin to every newcomer (Put up a nice “Just Ask” sign).

Give away the cow.

Write a blog.  🙂

Be like Radiohead, and Prince. They gave away albums (cheap), and gained fans who came to their concerts (expensive).

It’s called sampling, and when you give away a taste, you demonstrate your skills—without forcing anyone to buy a thing.

You can do it spontaneously. The muffin folks can put that sign up tomorrow. As your at-large Experience Designer, I’d like to recommend that you find ways to start your own Bzz. Write a press release. You can do this yourself, or you can have help with your press release—it won’t cost an arm and a leg.

Take out an ad. Get interviewed by your local paper. TALK IT UP. If you’ve still got Secret Business Syndrome, for goodness’ sake, get over it! Tell your staff to talk it up. Tell your letter carrier. Tell your mother.

You want to demonstrate your firm’s skill at doing what you promise to do, to as wide an audience as possible. Blow your own horn.

What was I sampling when I downloaded The Word of Mouth Manual? Not Dave Balter’s writing (which to keep my Perspective fresh, I have not yet read). Not Dave’s point-of-view. Remember, it’s not about the book. I sampled Dave’s ability to get people talking about Dave.

Including me. ‘Cause I just did. Twice.

And that, folks, is why I’m floored by his brilliance. Because I read umpteen reviews of his book in the last week-and-a-half, and it’s not about his book.

Can I tell you another secret? If the Emperor knew Dave Balter, he’d still be wearing his New Clothes, and everybody would be talking about how lovely they are. Dave Balter would have talked the little boy into being a BzzAgent.

What ingenious sampling have you heard about through Word-of-Mouth—and can you make that idea work for you?

How would you steal Dave Balter’s secret?


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson

Dave Balter Is Everywhere I Turn Lately

Chris Brogan, Jonathan Fields, Seth Godin, Jackie Huba, Guy Kawasaki, Drew McLellan, John Moore and several more authors I read have mentioned him in the last week.

In the last week? Kelly, who the heck is Dave Balter?

Dear reader, this proves that we do not run in all the same circles. Believe me, when everybody starts yammering about the same thing, be glad you are reading something else.

Dave Balter is the founder and CEO of the Boston-based buzz marketing firm BzzAgent. A company whose main purpose is to find ways to help his clients generate Word-of-Mouth, otherwise known as “buzz.” They’re arguably the most well-known company creating “managed” Word-of-Mouth (WoM), with a client list that will let you know how influential the niche is becoming. Buzz marketing agencies have a mixed reputation in marketing circles, because they are not paid to increase organic WoM (you and I talking to each other about something we like or dislike). They seed WoM artificially, “purchasing” buzz through freebies and other methods, which is fairly controversial.

I’m a big fan of organic Word-of-Mouth, but the non-disclosure which often (usually?) goes with “managed” WoM makes me rather queasy.

However, this is not why Dave Balter’s name is splashed all through my favorite marketing blogs.

Dave Balter has written a book. The Word of Mouth Manual: Vol. II. There is no Vol. I, in case you were wondering. For $45.00, you can buy it.

Lots of people write books. This is not why I am reading about him ad nauseam, either.

Dave Balter is giving his book away.

Dave Balter is not just giving his book away (as a free pdf). He is giving it away semi-exclusively, through links at only a few really interesting and influential blogs. He is not giving away a chapter. He is not giving it away for a limited time.

You can do what I did, dear reader: click on any of the links in the second paragraph and you can download the book, too. If you hate e-books like I do, print it out and stick it in a lovely 3-ring binder.* Works great.

If you want, as he says, “the shiny, water-resistant version, handsigned [by a monkey], with an original piece of art by Seth B. Minkin [not a monkey],” you can get that too. Did I mention? Pony up with forty-five bucks.

Now let’s get down and dirty.

Dave Balter’s Secret

You think he wants you to download this 120+ page book, fall in love with it, and spend the $45.00 for the fancy shelvable version.

Or download it, get sick of screen reading, and buy the book.

Maybe you think Dave Balter is sharing with the masses while looking for his 1,000 true fans to bail him out, resulting in $45,000 big ones for Mr. Balter.

What was that title?

Dave Balter Does NOT Want to Sell his Book

I was so floored by his brilliance last week that I nearly got teary.

Controversial dude or not, this one move is such genius I couldn’t believe it.

Dave Balter wants Chris, Jonathan, Seth, Jackie, Guy, Drew, John, and over 18,000 others as I write this (Yahoo! search for terms “Dave Balter” + “Word of Mouth Manual”), to talk about him. To mention him, to mention the book, to mention his company. He doesn’t want your forty-five dollars. He wants to show big, big companies what a big, big stir his firm could create for them in the blink of an eye.

Dave Balter wants buzz. Buzz will land him a year’s worth of new business, and 1,000 true fans buying his book can’t even pay the taxes on all the earnings from those new clients.

Dave Balter is playing with the Big Boys, and he plays to win.

Are you playing to win? Let’s have a rockin’ BrainStorm today. Could you create buzz that lands you a year’s worth of new business? What do you think of Dave Balter’s method of promoting his book firm?

Later this week: Steal Dave Balter’s Secret!


Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson


*By the way, though I did download the book and put it in a lovely 3-ring binder, I made a decision not to read it before writing this post. This is not a review of the book, and I didn’t want his thoughts on WoM in general clouding my thoughts of his current genius.

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


If you enjoyed this post, take a moment to subscribe now, at the top left of this page, and don’t forget to bookmark (below) to spread the word about Brand Propheteers!


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

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

Business Owners in the Delaware Valley Dish on the Secrets of Word-of-Mouth!

This post is the first of three in the series Brand Propheteers: 10 Ways to Get the People You Already Know to Rave About Your Firm.

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!

Good morning, choir. I’m preaching to you today. A lot of folks who read the Maximum Customer Experience Blog are also blog authors. Many of you are the owners of small businesses. Most of you are pretty tech savvy. At least one of my delightful readers claims to live in a small, techy cave. I’m lucky to have some raving fans out there, and goodness knows I am a fan of many of you myself!

Your intrepid Experience Designer 🙂 has spent the last month wearing out the shoe leather in search of insights only other small business owners can give us. I began by thinking of local businesses I am already a Propheteer for. Places I recommend whenever I get the chance. I talked to colleagues about the places they never stop raving about. Then it was on to researching and making a list of desired interview subjects, walking into each business, and asking if they could make time to talk about a skill that each one has mastered: The fine art of creating brand Propheteers. And you guys thought I just wandered around!

I interviewed more than thirty local business owners this month. Each one is the head of a thriving, well-established company, with years of of experience to draw on in our discussion. They’re going to tell you what they know about those raving fans.

To everybody who gave their time to this article, Thank You.

You’ll find names and links to those who wished to be listed in the footnotes. This was a hoot to do, and with four more interviews coming up in the 2008 series, I feel thrilled to have started out in such engaging company.

The Golden Opportunity Not One Owner Mentioned: Stop Preaching to the Choir!

We’ll get to those 10 Ways that my wonderful interview subjects told me about. First I want to tell you something you don’t want to hear.


Owners who run their businesses from their armchairs, as many of you do, or who stay too wrapped up in their own office or store, are missing the golden opportunity of making local contacts. You want word-of-mouth? Get brave and meet people. You may have heard the stats: most people do not read blogs (71% of U.S. adults, according to The Pew Internet & American Life Project). Many still don’t use the Internet at all (25%, from Pew’s Dec 2007 survey of U.S. adults). Plenty of truly fascinating people right near you don’t even own a computer—and your next client could be among them. Whether you’re a writer, a developer, a widget-maker, a retailer, or a restaurateur, your clients are not like you—or they wouldn’t need you!

If you insist on only finding customers who know what you know, and do things the way you do, you face a slow climb with a very narrow path. Open yourself up to your local community and discover a broad range of needs, opinions, and attitudes.

Put yourself out there, and start today. It gets easier, but not if you don’t get started! If you’ve been staring at your computer screen for months, wondering why more people don’t contact you, get out and make it happen.

People You Already Know?

Word-of-mouth. (WoM if you like a good acronym.) The Internet is slowly changing how some of us get our recommendations. These days it isn’t always a friend who recommends a product or a service to you. Journalists have always written reviews for magazines and newspapers. Today, you may also be influenced by an online review or a blog article.

The big secret of WoM is that the most powerful recommendations still happen off-line. We want what our friends, family, and colleagues want, more than we want what other amazon users want us to want.

In face-to-face encounters, we get all the cues: the smile, the voice, the gestures as a colleague describes describes her fabulous new p.r. person; the follow-up questions, the comparisons, as a teen discusses the must-read book; the spontaneous details as a friend remembers his restaurant Experience. No matter how reliable the magazine, newspaper, or online review, we still find personal referrals the most compelling.

Getting people you already know—customers, employees, business contacts, family, and every stakeholder you can think of—to rave about your firm is the Holy Grail for small businesses: completely sincere, personal, unpaid “marketing” that your Propheteers do for you as ambassadors for your company. What do you need to make that happen?

You’re Going to Need What They’ve Got

Today we’ll look at the three qualities these owners whom I interviewed all had in common. If you want to be a leader in a thriving, well-established company years from now, you are going to need what they’ve got.

Joy. I got reactions from skepticism to enthusiasm at my request, but when I returned for the interview, each owner glowed while talking about his or her company’s progress. This is no exaggeration. We talked about good points and pain points, but through it all it was clear each company had no finer Propheteer than the owner.

A quick list of terms I jotted in my notebook to describe owners as they were talking to me. Do you recognize yourself?

  • Vibrant
  • Fiercely dedicated
  • Total enthusiasm
  • Helpful
  • Passionate
  • Unabashed cheerleader
  • Happy
  • Friendly
  • Off-the-cuff
  • Delightfully homey
  • What a booster!
  • Nice
  • Making this a treat for me

Curiosity. About their customers, about market trends, about the local business climate, about what others are saying, about me, about life. I was a bit surprised that in such established firms there was not a bit of boredom. These folks never stop growing on the inside, and it shows in the business.

Uncertainty. The biggest surprise to me was that every owner I interviewed had pain points so real they jarred me as I was talking with them. Lots worried about staffing; some worried about changing times; some worried about the still-growing power of the Internet; some worried about time constraints on them; many worried about managing growth.

My take-away from this: Forget “never let them see you sweat.” If you aren’t sweating something, you don’t care enough. If you’re a small business owner with fears and insecurities, you are in some awesome company. Owners who succeed are running fast. They are energized and made bold by the demons that chase them, and they’re confident enough to discuss pain points—that’s how solutions come to light.


I didn’t find the mold from which small business leaders are made. The folks I interviewed varied widely in almost every personality trait: from shy to brassy, from low-key to energetic, from soft-spoken to booming.


Is it too trite to say “do what you love”? I don’t think so. If you want to succeed at what you do, never stop learning, never stop worrying, and love your work beyond all reason.

“I’ll Have What She’s Having”

Why quote the older woman in the deli scene* in When Harry Met Sally? It’s the funniest example of the power of word-of-mouth ever filmed. If Sally’s raving is a little too much for your business, you won’t want to miss the next Brand Propheteer post. In part two, we’ll begin to uncover those 10 ways to get the people you already know to rave about your firm with just the right amount of enthusiasm.

What one quality do you think every owner who gets fans to rave must have? Have you got enough joy, curiosity, and uncertainty to handle the road ahead?

Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson


Ready to read the next post in the Brand Propheteers series? Part Two Is Tricky


*Played by director Rob Reiner’s mother, Estelle.


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

File Under “I Am Not Making This Up…”

I knew this would be hard for you to believe, that Leo DiCaprio and I are such good buds. So I took a few pictures.

Letter from Leo

Leo's stationery

See, he used his own stationery. How nice.

Photo of Leo

In case I’d forgotten what he looks like since last we spoke, he sent a picture. Now I’m sharing with you, in case you’ve forgotten.

Normally, when Leo writes (see, I can call him Leo, because he sent me a letter. If he sends you a letter, too, then you may call him Leo), I do not share it with you. This time, it’s all about brand and Positioning and things I love to talk about here, so this time, I will share our intimacies with you.

Salutation: Dear Friend

He calls me “dear friend.” Sweet, huh.

What is “Brand Leo”?

Before today, Leonardo DiCaprio was positioned as a few things to me, through just living out loud, and through activism.

1. He is an actor. I liked him as Howard Hughes.

2. He is a guy who dates women who are too perfect to be real.

3. Mostly, to me, believe it or not, he is an environmentalist. A guy who owns a fleet of Priuses, and gives them away to friends (hey, where’s my Prius? I’m a friend!). A guy who wants to save the earth.

Let’s back up just a minute. What did Leo send with his love letter?

Whole mailer

That’s right, folks. Leo, who I know as a guy who could possibly have thrown the right hint to Al Gore this year, because they’re really pals and Leo wants to save the Earth—Leo let some non-profit I never opted in to, send me all this junk, waste postage and the USPS’s efforts, because he thought I’d like something crunchy to put at the bottom of my wastepaper basket and he was worried I’d have nothing else to do that with, since I am fanatic about staying off mailing lists and being on Do Not Mail lists. He was just looking out for me.

Now, brand Leo has become muddied. If Leo sent me all the same info in an unsolicited email, I would have been irritated, but I would probably have thought how cute and modern. I certainly wouldn’t be telling you. My emails are private, for goodness sake. Leo allowed these people, good cause though they may have, to put a dedicated tree-hugger on a junk-mail list, the ripple effects of which I can not imagine. He allowed them to confuse and even taint brand Leo.

Be careful, dear readers, how you Position yourselves. Take your time! Research! Plan well! Then, make sure your messaging is true to your Positioning.

In the meantime, I have to write back. Hmm, “Dear Friend. I’d wish you’d take me out of Letter Box 237. Take me out of my envelope and kiss me.” (I always wanted to use that quote somewhere.)

What, too forward? All right, how’s this: “Hey, Leo. Call me.”

Collage: Call Me

Hey, Leo. Call me.

What’s your company’s Positioning? Are you sending messages that are true to your Position?

Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson


For clarity: I mean nothing against the person, Leonardo DiCaprio. Heck, we’re just pen pals, I don’t even know him that well. He should have thought this out better, though. BTW, in case you were wondering, I checked. Every single item including the envelopes is marked recycled. One for Leo, but a simple Internet search will tell you there’s plenty of environmental impact for junk mail, from paper to delivery, even when the paper is recycled.


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Some Women Go Crazy for a Sharp Bottle of Perfume

Friends know I am very, very into scent. I remember smells, and notice smells. Professionally, it’s probably the first thing I consciously examine when I am in a new place.

Personally, I never go without fragrance. If I were a zillionaire I’d certainly own twice as many as I do now, and now it’s probably too many. I’m selective, though: a connoisseur, not a compulsive collector.

Clients and readers know I am very, very into visual design. Combine a signature product package with iconic art and I’m drooling.

Today I ran into my Happy-Mothers’-Day-to-Me budget-buster, calling to me to throw monetary caution to the wind. (Thanks, Dallas Morning News.) Andy Warhol. Bond No. 9. Spicy green floral. Meet me in mid-March at Saks. Can I possibly wait until Mothers’ Day to wear it?

They targeted me, hooked me, and have me anticipating its release. If the scent is as good as the hype, I’ll be paying twice what I’d like to for it very soon.

It feels exclusive, it makes me feel part of the cognoscenti, it strokes my ego. It combines my love of art, of package design, of successful niche business stories, and my love of smelling absolutely fabulous. Then I have to wait, and pay too much, and be fawned over by some overly-made-up lady at Saks, where I normally only go for inspiration. (Yes, I could get it at Bond’s website, but remember the connoisseur part? I’m not buying if it stinks, and that requires a store visit. D’ya think I could get a review copy?)

Psst… if you think only women do this, think about the mad dash for team clothing right before the Super Bowl. [Or insert favorite national-insanity sporting event here.] The prices on the stuff kill me.

If you know your Ideal Customer well, you can create this desire. Combine their loves, go a bit over-the-top, and set a date. Make ‘em wait. While they’re waiting, get some good press out there. Buzz, buzz…

What do you think about their blatant attempt to hook me and my easy fall? Got any other ideas for creating exclusivity with your latest release?

Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson