Treat yours customers as if they were newspapers reporters; this is the new mantra for savvy companies of all sizes.
As consumers, we've become disenchanted with advertising and marketing of all sorts, having being duped, tricked or made to feel foolish on more than one occasion. The last true medium that holds sway is referrals from friends, colleagues, or online reviews from the likes of Yelp, AngiesList or TripAdvisor. According to a survey by the American Marketing Association, 90 percent of consumers trust peer reviews and 70 percent trust online reviews. It's the last, true, medium that many consumers turn to when faced when inundated with choice, and confused by similar-sounding sales pitches.
Perhaps it is because reviews are the last sacred ground, that a flurry of outrage spread like wildfire across the Internet when news leaked that Reverb Communications (a PR agency) was paying interns to write positive reviews on iTunes for their clients Apps. Or when the occasional Amazon.com author gets ousted for disparaging competing books while positively reviewing their own. If you can't trust advertising messages, and you can't trust reviews, what else is left?
Based on my experience growing 99designs into a company that earns 7-figures per month, based largely on word of mouth, here are my three golden rules:
- Think long-term reputation vs. short-term profit. Trying to optimize profit on a sale-by-sale basis is a fool's game, leads to frustrated customers and lost repeat business. When FedEx left an eBags package without a signature at our office building over the weekend which got stolen, a single email to the company resulted in a quick refund to my credit card. Compare that to a recent experience with a National Retailer, where a request for an exchange or refund took two store visits, three people, and more than 90 minutes of waiting while employees scoured the back-room for inventory that turned out to be non-existant.Even Apple lived up to its reputation recently, happily issuing me a partial refund on a laptop order after I failed to claim a discount I was eligible for. It would have been easy to transfer me around different departments, put me on hold, or outright say "no" to retroactively applying the discount. But the first person I spoke to happily made it happen even though they had no idea that we had 90+ employees on MacBook's that we regularly refresh, spending thousands in the process. You never know who the customer is on the other end.
- Identify your top customers and make them feel special. With many companies, the most feverently loyal customers represent a disproportionately huge chunk of revenue. Knowing who those people are -- and giving them special attention -- is a must-do for every company. I recently had a conversation with the founder of a large Las Vegas based conference that's been running for more than 10 years who used Klout.com to identify his most influential attendees. By offering just a little bit extra (free limo service to and from the airport), a dozen influencers directly contributed to over 100 additional tickets being sold with almost no additional marketing costs.
- Make yourself available. I had my personal cell phone number on sitepoint.com for 10-years (a site visited by more than 2.5 million people every month and ranked Top 1000 in the world), and was happy to answer more than 30 calls on Christmas Day, when a special deal we were running on the website went wonky. These days, we have dedicated support reps for us on three continents, and we've never outsourced to a call centre to cut costs.
Tony Hsieh from Zappos says his company loves to talk to customers, and classifies customer service as a marketing investment, rather than an expense that must constantly be slashed and analyzed. Zappos has no metrics that reps have to hit around calls per hour, average time per call, or other silly nonsense that leads frustrated customers.
Some businesses are even taking it a step further, by turning their most prolific fans into advocates and online sales people. Under Armour and Skullcandy have recruited an online sales force made up of their most loyal and knowledgable customers and are paying them with cash and gear for answering live chat requests from prospective customers on their websites. After all, who better to make authentic product recommendations and answer detailed product questions, than the customers already using them? No outsourced call centre team can match the passion, product knowledge and helpfulness of your most ardent supporters. There is hope.
Matt Mickiewicz started his first company while still in High School, and has leveraged his early success into 3 profitable businesses which have have published 50+ web design books in 20 languages, paid designers over $24 million for their graphic design work through 99designs, and helped entrepreneurs sell over $60 million in websites and domain names on Flippa. Matt is also a member of The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. The YEC promotes entrepreneurship as a solution to unemployment and underemployment and provides entrepreneurs with access to tools, mentorship, and resources that support each stage of their business’s development and growth.