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The Best Salespeople are Free

May 1, 2007
Cultivate your most enthusiastic customers and they will spread the word for you.

It's the best customer service I've ever had.

It was the best meal I ever experienced.

By far, it's the best vacation resort — went far beyond my expectations.

When I have experiences like those above, I am sure to tell the world. That makes me a voluntary salesman for those establishments.

Some call it word-of-mouth marketing. Some called it sneezing the idea virus on others. I call it a marketing strategy you need to embrace in this business climate of webbed instant communication.

You have two sales forces: those you pay through salary and commissions and those who volunteer their services. The best businesses have a strategic initiative to maintain effectiveness in both areas.

Volunteer salespeople are your customers who are so passionate about what you do for them that they actively spread the word about your company and the event that made them so excited about you. Their words are more effective than those of your salespeople simply because they are promoting you with no expectations of compensation!

You need to take these five steps to maximize the volunteer sales strategy:

Step 1: Have a Great Story.

People like to spread great stories they can buy into. Life is Good is a brand of active wear that created great buzz and loyalty from customers initially based on the rags to riches story of the founders. In their retail stores, the saga of their journey and overnight success is documented on the wall. Most customers either stop to read it or are eager to point it out to others not familiar with it. It's the beginning of the buzz factor.

Every organization started from somewhere and has had a growth curve, or an interesting decision point, or a unique perspective. Take some time to document your corporate history. How can you make this story one worth passing along? What might you discover about a founding core value that you want to recommit to? What obstacle have you overcome in the past to get where you are today? How can your customers relate to this?

Great stories can also come from a specific situation every customer should hear about. The Nordstrom lore of great customer service was spread by Tom Peters telling an amazing story in his worldwide programs. His volunteerism was the greatest boost to Nordstrom's commitment to service quality, and it was one customer's remarkable story.

Realize no matter how compelling your story is, a portion of your customers are just not that passionate about anything to the point where they feel compelled to share it with others. Don't worry about that small percentage. Focus on the customers who are that passionate, who will gladly share a great story with others. In my case, people who have heard my programs become the best salespeople I have. Even though they may not remember my story exactly, they remember they enjoyed my program and learned from it and are eager to recommend me for other associations or corporations they are affiliated with. Sometimes it's years later before I see the fruits of that particular volunteer effort, but the volunteerism is alive.

Step 2: Give Them a Personal Reason to Talk.

If you are the normal organization delivering the normal products with normal service in the normal way, you will never have volunteer salespeople. Don't be ho-hum! You need to do things remarkably so people will remark about them. Think of the things that have turned you into a volunteer salesperson. What about that experience made you so passionate you just had to tell others about it? For some of you, your first thought was a negative experience you felt compelled to tell others about. Statistics have shown a customer with a problem solved beyond their expectations will actually become a better customer than if the problem had never occurred! That's the opportunity to create a great story.

How can you ramp up your service level to make it remarkable? What follow-up tools will create a “Wow” reaction from your customers? What innovations can you deliver or teach them about to position you as the expert in the minds of your customers? The answers to those critically important questions will get people talking. In today's copycat business world, it doesn't take great effort to be unique and remarkable. It only takes a focus and decision to set your organization apart. Once your customers are personally experiencing remarkable efforts, they will be eager to spread the word on how good you are.

Step 3: Take Care of Your Fans.

Once you identify who are the volunteer salespeople in your customer ranks, create a systematic strategy to take care of them. I call it my fan club. I know who my 25 best fans are (“best” as in how much they enjoy spreading the word about me) and I make a concerted effort to treat them specially. I learn more about their personal interests and make a point to talk with them about those things.

I also send them trinkets of little significant value beyond the impression that I did something unique that said, “I am thinking of you.” For example, many years ago I had the opportunity to play Pebble Beach. During my round they were aerating the fairways, which means there were little grass and dirt plugs all over the place! Instead of grumbling about not getting to play the course in pristine conditions, I scooped up a bunch of the plugs and sent them to my fan club members who were golfers. I told them it was a piece of Pebble for them. They went nuts!

Step 4: Help the Message Spread Faster.

If you want to appeal to the elite people in your customer base, the best way to reach them is to make them a member of the club within the club. Airlines learned the best way to appeal to the elite is to establish levels within the frequent flyer program. A gold member has higher status than a silver member, and a silver member has status over a basic member of the frequent flyer program. How do you create this? You obviously appreciate everyone who uses your services and products, but those who volunteer word-of-mouth sales for you should be treated as the elite group within that club.

Once you have established the fan club, give them special perks. On airlines the elite get to board first. Have a special debut of new products and services for your elite group only, an advanced showing before everyone else gets a peak. Food vendors give preferred pricing to their volunteer restaurants. Retailers give private clothing shows to their elite customers and give them first option to buy. One financial institution has a private function with a serious spread of food for their elite level. Something that says, “I appreciate what you are doing, and even though you are not on my payroll I am showing you how important you are to me” without breaking the law and creating a financial kickback situation.

Another way to spread the word is to give them the proper tools. Share research data you've done with new products to demonstrate the savings and better efficiency they will experience. Information that can be easily passed along will make the volunteer salesperson someone who's “in the know” to their network (which they will love) and it spreads your information to a greater audience through a better channel than any cold call could ever match.

Step 5: Invite Them Inside.

Aggressive companies make improvements based on the feedback they receive from customers. If you are relying on your salespeople to be the only conduit of that information, you are letting them censor information that could be a bad reflection on them. Get raw pure data straight from those who know: your volunteers. Routinely ask them for feedback, ideas for improvement and information to questions such as, “If there was one service you could have that is unavailable or thought to be impossible, what would it be?” Your volunteers respect you enough to give you thoughtful responses. Not only are you tapping into their willingness to spread a positive word about your organization, now they are offering their brain power to assist you will innovation. Do you think they now have a significant amount of buy-in to your development? Soon they will be selling you not only because they believe in you, but because they are now part of your ideas and improvements.

The return on your investment when creating effective volunteer salespeople will be greater than any strategic initiative you've tried thus far. Why? Because people love to be in the know and part of a winning team.

The author is president of Russell J. White International Inc., Lake Wylie, S.C., and known in speaking and consulting circles as “The Big Guy.” He is an author, trainer and international speaker with 25 years of experience as a Fortune 500 manager and consultant. White is the author of “Debunking the Designated Decoy: Get to the truth in your organization!” and “Little White Truths: Lessons for Leadership.” His articles appear in national trade magazines and regional business newspapers. White can be reach at (877) 275-9468 or by e-mail at [email protected]. Visit his Web site at

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