Trend Lines: Word-of-mouth ain’t what it used to be

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you know about the ice bucket challenge to raise money for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Even in my limited Facebook world, I’ve been amazed at the way the fire has spread.

This got me thinking about the spread of information and how it has changed. Even as late as the mid-1990s, we were teaching the “rule of seven” in customer service. Each person is likely to tell seven people about their experience and those seven will pass it on.

Word-of-mouth has always been a key concept in building or losing your customer base. With your customers connected to Facebook, Twitter and various Internet feedback sites, the rule of seven has become the rule of hundreds. Today more than ever, it is important for small-business owners to pay attention to the customer experience and to what customers are saying.

Here are some tips for assuring that the information your customers’ post helps instead of hinders your business.

Listen. Management guru Stephen Covey once said you should seek to understand before you seek to be understood. The simple act of truly listening without being defensive can work wonders in creating a satisfying customer experience. And the bonus is you might learn something that can actually improve your business.

Welcome complaints. Seek them out. See complaints as a gift rather than a nuisance. Better your customers should tell you their concerns than leave your business and post bitter messages on the internet.

Offer something extra. For travelers in Korea and China, it is not uncommon for shop owners to offer something extra with the purchase -- a free bowl of peanuts when they order a beer or a coin on a red tassel (good luck charm) when they make a purchase. Never underestimate the value of a little something extra to make your customer feel appreciated.

Take the blame. When there is a problem, acknowledge it and own your part in it. Apologies are empty unless customers truly believe they have been heard. You acknowledge there is an issue, and you will do something to make sure the issue is addressed.

Keep your ear to the ground. Savvy companies develop systems and processes to ensure they know what their customers truly think. If you’re the business owner, work the front counter for a day and talk to your customers. Ride with your sales people and see firsthand what your customers experience. Use the Internet to find those sources where customers might post comments about your business and pay attention.

Remember, word-of-mouth simply isn’t as important as it used to be. It’s much more important!

An experienced business executive and organizational consultant, Jan Flynn teaches at the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business at Georgia College & State University.