Ann McGee-Cooper stands by a company she loves.
After the 9/11 attacks, which crippled and jeopardized airlines for months, Ms. McGee-Cooper wrote Southwest Airlines a letter. She said she was persuading clients, friends and family members to fly Southwest. She was purchasing tickets on their behalf. She bought company stock. Perhaps most tellingly, she included a $500 check with her letter, saying that the airline needed the money "more than I do." She is beyond loyal; she's a customer evangelist.
Airlines often consider loyal customers as those who rank high in frequent-flier programs. This is true for other businesses, too; they often define loyalty as customers who purchase repeatedly. So they devise "loyalty programs" to goose purchase frequency, but their reliance on these programs as an indicator for word of mouth is misplaced. A frequent purchaser may just as easily bad-mouth a brand to friends, colleagues or customers.
However, a customer evangelist not only purchases regularly, she is compelled to tell others. Call her part of the lunatic fringe if you must, but Ms. McGee-Cooper considers Southwest part of her family. This doesn't mean that Southwest is for everyone; it has a share of detractors who don't care for its policies of no reserved seats and low frills. But your business isn't for everyone, either. Ms. McGee-Cooper's $500 check to the Southwest employees' fund in the economic chaos after 9/11 demonstrated her willingness to make a sacrifice on behalf of her relationship with the company.
What makes Southwest and other companies with armies of dedicated evangelists stand apart? They have crossed the emotional chasm that separates most businesses with customers. Their customers believe.
To understand how a customer evangelist behaves, here are some clues:
They passionately recommend your company to friends, neighbors and colleagues.
They publicly profess a belief in the company and its people.
They frequently purchase products and services as gifts.
They provide unsolicited praise or suggestions of improvement.
They forgive occasional subpar seasons or slips in customer service.
They do not want to be bought; they extol your virtues freely.
They feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Technology, globalization and outsourcing have leveled the playing field to make quality less of a competitive advantage. People make decisions these days by relying on trusted friends, colleagues or family members. BigResearch surveys a panel of 15,000 people a few times a year, and panelists say that word of mouth is their chief influencer when it comes to purchase decisions. Word of mouth eclipses all forms of advertising and traditional PR.
Research from RoperASW shows how word of mouth tops advertising for all sorts of purchase decisions. And research by Satmetrix and Fred Reichheld among airlines, car-rental firms and internet service providers found that the companies with the highest number of advocates had the best revenue growth.
In this marketing scenario, evangelists influence future customers. So how do we help our loyal customers become our best salespeople?
In our research, we found six common strategies among organizations that have cultivated noteworthy levels of customer evangelism. Here, then, are those six tenets.
1. Customer Plus-Delta
Understand what evangelists love by continuously gathering their input.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is a feedback machine. He conducts mini-surveys with nearly every fan he meets, asking how to improve the fan experience (the "delta" in plus-delta).
Build-a-Bear Workshop uses a "Cub Advisory Board" as a feedback and decision-input body. The board is made up of 20 8-to-12-year-olds who review new-product ideas and give a paws up or down. Many products in the stores are customer ideas.
Lastly, create a Customer Evangelism Score. Ask customers if they would recommend you to their families, friends or colleagues: Yes, No or Don't Know. Convert the numbers to percentages; subtract the No's and Don't Know's from the Yes column. The result is your composite Customer Evangelism Score.
2. Napsterize Your Knowledge
The original Napster, the file-sharing service that turned the music industry's distribution system on its ear, taught us that when people share something of value, it can spread quickly from person to person, network to network.
Instead of sharing someone else's intellectual property, as Napster citizens did, release your own knowledge, data or intellectual property into a fast-moving distribution network. Avoid moating your knowledge behind walls of cumbersome registration requirements or white-paper PDFs. Sharing your knowledge should be like socks on a shiny gym floor: largely frictionless.
Sharing knowledge freely makes it more accessible, reducing your biggest threat: obscurity. It's liable to fall into the hands of people who will tell others about it. People talking about your knowledge increases its perceived and actual value.
3. Build the Buzz
Keep customer evangelists talking by providing them tools, programs and features to demonstrate their passion.
Sneaker company Converse asked amateur filmmakers to submit 30-second short firms that demonstrated their inspiration of the iconic brand. The best of the 1,800 submissions were showcased in the Converse Gallery website (conversegallery.com). Converse used the best of the best films as TV commercials. One key outcome of the gallery: Sales of shoes via the website doubled in the month after the gallery's launch.
Some customer evangelists devote part of their lives to creating blogs and podcasts about companies and products they love. Vespa, an Italian scooter manufacturer, tapped two of its customers to pen a company-sponsored blog called Vespaway. The customers blog without pay and keep thoughts authentic.
4. Create Community
Provide like-minded customers the chance to meet.
Paetec provides telecommunications services to hotels, universities and other companies. It has grown into a $500 million company in six years, and its growth is due entirely to evangelism. Paetec's primary marketing strategy: Host informal dinners around the country for customers. Current customers and key prospects are invited to dine on Paetec's tab and meet one another. No boring PowerPoint presentations here, just customers talking about their telecommunications challenges and their unfiltered experiences of being a Paetec customer. Prospects are sold on the company by other customers.
When customers meet one another beneath your community's umbrella, the value you deliver increases exponentially as new, customer-to-customer relationships take shape.
5. Make Bite-Size Chunks
Even if a customer doesn't purchase, she may spread favorable word of mouth.
Bite-size chunks of products and services reduce risk, improve sales cycles and offer upfront value. This is largely the marketing strategy of beverage maker Izze. The company's slightly carbonated juice drinks appear at high-profile charity events. In what surely must be confounding to some brand marketers, Izze insists that event organizers do not display Izze logos or banners anywhere at the event. The outcome is serendipity: Attendees feel as if they have "discovered" a new drink without a marketer hawking it to them. The discovery process inspires them to tell others. The result: Starbucks, Whole Foods and Target have all sought out Izze to stock the beverages in their stores, sans slotting fees.
6. Create a Cause
Companies that strive for a higher purpose-like supporting "freedom," as Harley-Davidson and Southwest do-often find that customers, vendors, suppliers and employees naturally root for their success.
Customer evangelists crave emotional connection and validation; a well-defined cause generates emotional commitment. When your brand, product or service aspires to change the world, altruism and capitalism converge.
Tens of millions of blogs means word of mouth spreads faster than ever, forming a virtual, global, 24-hour news channel for business buzz. Evangelistic customers can be key contributors to the buzz.
Demonstrate that you appreciate the support of your lunatic fringe in good times and bad. Give your vocal customers meaningful, authentic reasons to work harder for you; the investment is repaid by people like Ann McGee-Cooper.
About the Authors
Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are authors of "Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force" (Dearborn) and authors of the Church of the Customer blog (churchofthecustomer.com). As business advisers, they have worked with Starbucks, Microsoft and others. They also sit on the board of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.