Let Your Customers Do the Talking
Publish compliments about your work so prospects can feel safe choosing you
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
When it comes to making your company attractive, a little praise can go a long way. Consumers like to be reassured before making an important buying decision, and a few flattering words from your customers can help them feel safe entrusting you with their propane delivery and service.
The challenge for a lot of companies in this field, particularly smaller companies, is generating the kind of customer feedback that is most helpful in marketing. It's not that your customers don't appreciate you; they just don't put it in writing very often. You might have a few complimentary letters in your files, but they're not enough to fill out a customer testimonial section on your Web site.
Fortunately, there are proactive steps a company can take to elicit more feedback and identify customers who are willing to vouch for you. Before we delve into the specifics, let's take a closer look at what existing customers can and can't do to help your business.
Traditional Word of Mouth
One thing your customers can't do alone is deliver the volume of new customers that you need. Word-of-mouth can be extremely effective on an individual basis, because a recommendation from a friend or relative is highly reassuring. But waiting for traditional word-of-mouth to deliver is unthinkable for an owner who is serious about maximizing opportunities. Not only is word-of-mouth unpredictable, it is unreliable and completely outside the company's control.
Rather than wait, companies can actively encourage personal recommendations with a referral incentive program that rewards a customer with company credit whenever a referral they bring to you becomes a customer. These programs can provide a steady stream of new business at a very reasonable price.
Even a strong referral program needs to be well supplemented, however, because personal word-of-mouth only goes so far. Americans have become increasingly isolated and rootless, and many are disconnected from traditional networks and live far from where they grew up. It is impossible for them to find your company through word-of-mouth, because they are not connected to any of your customers.
By relying too heavily on word of mouth, a company can make itself virtually invisible to thousands of potential customers. A 2010 study by BIA/Kelsey and ConStat indicated that 97 percent of consumers now use online media to search for products or services in their local area.
Companies should promote (or continue promoting) customer referral while also incorporating customer recommendation in online and offline marketing materials. That way, you can use the power of customer recommendations to influence prospects that have no previous connection to you.
Will Your Customers Vouch for You?
Before you start a process of soliciting customer opinions, it's best to make a threshold decision regarding your company's performance. If you were to start contacting customers for feedback, what would you get? If your customer service has been hit-or-miss, you might get more criticism than praise, and the process might be fruitless. But if your performance has been solid day-in, day-out for years, you can be confident about finding customers who will gladly help you promote the company.
To get the cooperation you want, plan in advance how you want to use customers' comments in your marketing. There are many possibilities. A simple approach would be to use written quotes, which can come from previous customer letters and e-mails, as well as from fresh contacts that you initiate. Adding testimonials to your site is an excellent investment, because that is where many prospects will check you out for the first time. When your site paints an appealing picture of your company that is reinforced by plaudits from customers, the combination is compelling and reassuring. You can also videotape customers talking about the company and add video testimonials to your site.
Written testimonials also play well in a company newsletter, where existing customers can read about the great service you have provided. Everybody loves a winner, and reading praise from fellow customers will reinforce their loyalty to you and make them less susceptible to competitors' come-on offers.
You can also develop customer spotlights and case studies for your newsletter and/or website. Those are narrative stories in which customers describe their positive experiences with the company. For example, if a customer came to you looking to save energy and you installed a new high-efficiency system, you could publish a case study in which they discuss the installation and how it helped them meet their goals.
Advertising is another good outlet for positive feedback. A print ad can feature a few quotes from different customers or a condensed case study, and a broadcast ad can feature the customer discussing their experience with the company.
Tap Your Goodwill
When you know in advance what sort of assistance you're looking for, you make it easy for customers to decide how involved they wish to be. Enter the process with a positive attitude and don't assume that customers will prefer to minimize their involvement. On the contrary, a lot of people would welcome the opportunity to be part of a case study or a commercial, particularly if they have strong feelings about your company's work.
You can lay the groundwork by sharing your ideas in advance with your customers. Through your newsletter or a one-time letter to customers, tell a positive story about how you want to recruit satisfied customers to help tell your company's story. You can prompt willing customers to come forward and alert them that they might be getting calls from you about the campaign. You'll have less explaining to do, and you'll meet less resistance.
Rather than calling customers at random, you can identify likely candidates by soliciting feedback systematically and flagging customers who regard the company highly. You can implement customer surveys and follow-up calls, which serve you in several ways. In addition to helping identify strong supporters, they demonstrate your desire to deliver great customer service and to hear what your customers say. In the course of surveying, you can ask the customers whether they are interested in participating in company promotions.
Another way to identify your most helpful customers is with a letter-writing contest in your newsletter. Ask customers to explain what they like about the company or to describe a positive experience, and offer a prize for the best letter. When the letters come in, you'll have a new selection of customers to draw on for testimonials.
You can also solicit comments on your website home page and launch a Facebook page, where it is easy for customers to post comments. In addition, you can train CSRs and technicians to be on the lookout for customers who might be willing to help.
There are a couple of important rules to keep in mind when recruiting customers for marketing. First, be careful about offering financial rewards for participation. A letter-writing competition with a prize is kosher, because it serves another purpose: You will choose one letter and run it in the newsletter. The fact that you use the same contest to identify testimonial candidates is well above board. But any remuneration that is directly connected to participation in testimonials, case studies or advertising should be strictly avoided. It would cheapen the process, and if word leaked out that you were paying for their praise, your reputation would suffer.
Second, get the customer's written permission to use their words, images, etc. - and their full name and town. That way, the terms of participation are clearly understood in advance, and the customer cannot deny that they granted permission to use their words.
Handle Quotes With Care
Customer testimonials are not all created equal. To truly serve your needs, they must be authentic and meaningful. Use the customer's actual words as much as possible, and resist the urge to over-edit. The prospects and customers you are trying to impress will be turned off if they think you influenced the customers or put words in their mouths. This can get tricky when you are soliciting comments, because the customer may answer in sentence fragments or with yes-or-no answers. If they are discussing a specific interaction with the company, encourage them to tell their story and interrupt as little as possible. Ask open-ended questions that promote thorough answers instead of just yes or no. Record the conversation, try to use their exact words, and ask them to approve any quote you might use.
It should go without saying, but never publish phony customer testimonials. Ethical reasons aside, a fake testimonial usually sounds fake. The reader will see through it, and you'll look terrible in their eyes.
When you develop great marketing materials that incorporate strong words of praise from customers, you put your best foot forward and make it easy for customers to choose you over your competition. You also reassure existing customers that they have chosen a winner.
If your customers love you, they'll be happy to help you succeed. Reach out and ask for their help, then enjoy the results.
Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., a full service marketing and communications firm with offices in New York City, Long Island and Boston. The company is now offering free marketing consultations to Oilheat retailers. Phone: 800-796-3342, or visit their Web sites at www.primediany.com and www.propane-advertising.com.