Marketing Strategy

How to Use Word-of-Mouth Marketing and Win Customers

Did you know that word-of-mouth marketing is still one of the most important ways businesses drum up customers?

We love to talk about the things we love. Whether it’s our favorite sports team or the new burger place we tried last night, we can’t seem to help ourselves when things delight us. And it’s totally natural. Almost effortless. It’s not an advertisement, we’re just helping our fellow travelers navigate this confusing world.

Anyone with a local business knows instinctively that they live and die by word-of-mouth. A recent study found that a staggering 90% of purchases are influenced by word-of-mouth, and that another 19% are a direct result of it. While we live in a digital age and can easily start to think about word-of-mouth in digital terms, such as social or reviews, the reality is that most word-of-mouth is still very much analog.

Andy Sernovitz, who literally wrote the book on word- of-mouth called “Word-of-Mouth Marketing,” says that 80% of word-of-mouth is still happening face-to-face, and only 20% is online. As much time as we spend interacting with others online, it still pales in comparison to our live interactions. Did you know that the average working adult has 27 conversations per day lasting about 10 minutes each amounting to 5,000-7,000 words? It is within the thick and thin of these interactions that word-of-mouth weaves itself, almost imperceptibly, into a tapestry that shapes the way we engage with the world.

In short: word-of-mouth is how we get customers.

marketing meeting in the works

It’s easy to forget that the referrals we see on our digital dashboards are the result of word-of-mouth. Before they messaged you, your would-be customer asked someone they know and trust who they know and trust.

We may have a fancy dashboard attributing the referral to X, Y, or Z, but that’s not always the source. Those are just the channels the customer used to contact you.

Before that, your potential customer most likely heard about you from someone they trust. Even though word-of-mouth was the source, the conversation probably happened spontaneously.

How can you get people to talk spontaneously about your business like this? The answer is simple, yet profound—be remarkable.

01. Be Remarkable

It was Seth Godin who popularized the notion of being remarkable as a brand. Godin, a business guru and author, says, in order to be remarkable you need to be a purple cow. But, what does that even mean? Well, it means that in order to get people talking, you have to stand out from the sea of unremarkable, brown cows.

By definition, being “remarkable” means that what you are doing is worthy of remark, or worth talking about. Let that sink in. Read it again. Seriously, that idea alone can change your business.

We are efficient beings. And we sort of have to expect that everyone is going to do their job and do it well enough—if you’re making a sandwich or fixing fences or extracting a tooth. There is no reason to remark on things that are executed as expected.

Boasted no one ever:

  • “That sandwich tasted exactly like I expected and always does”
  • “The bank teller was able to withdraw money from my account and hand it to me.”
  • “They have this phone system that lets me listen to a menu of options to choose from.”

In fact, people are twice as likely to talk about a bad customer experience than a good one. And only when something is truly, remarkably good do we go out of our way to say something.

There are many ways your business could be remarkable—product quality, design, speed of delivery, personality, humor, cost, etc. But we’re going to focus on one thing that has the greatest impact—customer experience.

[x] Customer Experience

[ ] Product Quality
[ ] Design
[ ] Speed of Delivery

[ ] Personality

[ ] Humor
[ ] Cost

“Advertising is the cost of being boring.”

Andy Sernovitz

02. The Remarkable Customer Experience

We’ve all had them—a remarkable customer experience. They seem to come out of the blue. Taken by surprise, we wake from the doldrums of daily routine to the possibility of joy and delight.

Remember the first time someone at a restaurant remembered your name? Whoa. And then they asked if you wanted the usual? How many times have you gone back?

How about that time you called an e-commerce retailer expecting to get a pre- recorded message and someone picked up and asked “how can I help you?” and then they helped! You almost didn’t know what to say, right?

Did you tell your friends? Did you write a review? How many people do you think this influenced? The answer is: probably a lot more than you know.

What Remarkable Isn’t

Before we take a deeper look into what is remarkable, it’s helpful to know what remarkable is not.

Wearing a pink cowboy hat when you’ve only ever worn a brown one might be noticed by the people who know you, but it probably won’t cause strangers to remark. Why? They’ve already seen a pink cowboy hat. And there’s a lot competing for their attention.

Being remarkable isn’t just attention-grabbing. It’s being what no one else is—the one and only real purple cow—or doing something in a way that others like you aren’t doing.

person shipping packages

03. How to Increase Word-of-Mouth by Being Remarkable

Sure, we’re all willing to give a recommendation to a friend when asked, but that’s not the type of word-of-mouth we’re talking about. While those recommendations are good, and only happen when you’re doing something right, they don’t have the revenue-expanding force of people talking about your business just because it’s remarkable. We’re talking about spontaneous glee. That’s the type of word of mouth that changes the game.

Let’s leave theory behind for now and get into the practice of being remarkable. In the sections following, we’ll review some of the common plays in the ‘be remarkable’ playbook. In each section, we’ll expand on the mechanics and psychology of each play, and give concrete examples from businesses of various sizes and across several industries.

Listen Closely

Consider this—you may already be doing something remarkable and don’t even know it.

Before you go crazy with brainstorming meetings and filling spreadsheets with ideas of how to be remarkable, you might want to stop and listen closely to what your customers are already saying about you. Chances are your customers are already pointing it out.

Reviews are an obvious place to look. Read through all the reviews of your company (yes, all of them.) and start to note patterns. Like what people are taking pictures of or the most commonly used word to describe your business. Pay close attention to new customers, especially if your business relies on referrals—what were customers promised, and how did you deliver?

This might be a chance to right some wrongs (we’ll talk more about this later).

Look Beyond the Obvious

What is remarkable about you may not have anything to do with your core product or offering. In fact, very often it’s easier to make how the product is delivered remarkable than it is to make remarkable what is actually being delivered.

Red Lobster

A long-term cook at Red Lobster noticed that every time he told someone he worked at Red Lobster, he got a very similar yet oddly unpredictable response. It didn’t have to do with the lobster or even the endless shrimp. It actually had nothing to do with seafood at all. Anyone who had ever been to the restaurant would say to him, “Oh, I love those garlic- cheese biscuits.”

If you haven’t been, you might be surprised to know that those now quite famous biscuits (affectionately referred to as Cheddar Bay Biscuits) aren’t even on the menu. They’re free. The server brings a basket of them to the table along with the salad. In the basket is one biscuit for each seated guest, plus one. Why? The servers are trained to deliver exactly one extra in order to spark conversation.

You see where we’re going with this?

So, you may be wondering, did the head mucky- mucks and corporate chefs at Red Lobster create these culinary marvels knowing that someday this free item would be more popular than the seafood itself? Probably not. What they must have known, though, was that offering a really good, free item no other similarly-sized casual dining restaurant did was going to endear them to customers right away, especially if they offered just a little more than they needed to. And one thing’s for sure— their current billboards featuring the iconic basket of biscuits suggest they have since figured out just what kind of gold they struck with their concept.

Shatter Expectations

It’s important to state first that expectations are relative. A fast-food restaurant does not have the same expectations as a Michelin star French restaurant: for one of them we expect to wait for a reservation, and at the other we expect the food to be hot.

Expectations are everything when it comes to customer experience. When you’re looking for ways to shatter these expectations, don’t look past the mundane or ordinary. Those might be where the opportunities are for you to be remarkable.

woman sitting on floor looking at sms

Beaver Valley Chevron

What could a gas station do to shatter expectations? Let the Beaver Valley Chevron off of exit 109 on I-15 in Beaver, Utah, be an example. The good folks at Beaver Valley Chevron decided to turn the clock back to the ’50s and become a full-service gas station. When you pull up to the station, a nice guy with a name tag meets you and says, “I’ll pump it for you. How much do you want?”

It’s so simple, yet kind of shocking, because it’s completely out of the ordinary and it’s such a nice service you may not have even known you wanted.

And their 439 4.5-star reviews (for a gas station) say it’s working, especially when you compare it to the 44 reviews of the station across the street.

Defy Laws of Speed and Time

As the adage goes “time is money.” Another way to be remarkable is by doing things faster than expected. Like…way faster.

The Cleveland Clinic

Hold on. Don’t skip this. We know it sounds boring, but it gets good. We promise. The Cleveland Clinic is a remarkable healthcare system in Cleveland, Ohio. They have some of the top doctors in the world and attract patients from all 50 states and 180 countries. The main 165-acre main campus is like a city unto itself with 42 buildings. Their 52,000 employees treat over 7 million patients each year.

That’s not what’s remarkable about the Cleveland Clinic. Here’s what is. When you call their main number a person answers the phone and says, “Thank you for calling the Cleveland Clinic, can I make an appointment for you today?”

Most people don’t know what to think. Today, really?

They can do this because they’ve optimized their entire system around same-day appointments. If you need lab work or scans: same day. And if you sit down with a doctor to go over results, also same day.

Now, this means that if you try to set an appointment for the following week, depending on the specialty, they will likely tell you they’re booked several months out. By optimizing for day-of appointments, they’ve set themselves apart. The best part? A hospital system like this doesn’t need to work hard to find new patients. They could probably rest on their laurels if they wanted to. But they don’t.

Get Out of the Showroom

There’s been a shift in the way we live our lives. Smartphones and apps have been around for years now, but recently we reached a tipping point in our expectations as a consumer. Now we live our lives “in between.” We order from Amazon in between meetings at work, we make an appointment to have the chip in the car windshield repaired in between the gym and picking the kids up.

Savvy companies recognized the shift. They know we don’t want to get chased down by a salesperson. We don’t even want to visit the showroom. We want the showroom to come to us, to engage when we’re ready to engage, and from our own living room. Businesses that adapt have the opportunity to be remarkable.

Van Horn Automotive Group

Over the last 50 years, Van Horn Automotive Group has successfully grown from one car dealership in Plymouth, Wisconsin, to 15 dealerships across Wisconsin and Iowa with another one on the way. And five new dealerships have opened in just the last two years.

In charge of managing the communication challenges that come with Van Horn’s exponential growth is Tina Tasche. “We’re trying to make sure that all of our customers have the same experience regardless of what dealership they’re dealing with,” says Tasche.

As customer’s needs have shifted and shopping behaviors have changed, Van Horn has had to be innovative in how it interacts with customers. “There’s been a huge change, even over the last 12 months or so with the customer desire to text and chat instead of being on the phone or emailing. One thing that’s been huge for us is we’ve made all of our landline phone numbers textable in our dealerships,” says Tasche. “And it was just crazy after we did that—the amount of messages we didn’t realize that we weren’t getting from our customers.”

In Tasche’s chaos-management toolkit is Podium. Van Horn Automotive Group has not only been able to provide a consistent experience across all stores but has been able to respond to new leads from any source in a remarkable 15 minutes or less.

Jack Williams Tire

For most people, getting new tires is a painful experience. For the same cost of a new, high-end smartphone, we have to sit in worn-out chairs, listening to news blaring from a small TV set as the smell of burnt coffee combats the odor of new rubber. And, we get to do this on a workday.

Jack Williams Tire is a 90-year-old tire shop with 36 retail locations in Pennsylvania. For a small fee (around 10 bucks) you can avoid the showroom— the coffee, the small TV—and get a set of new rubber wherever you happen to be, and in the time it usually takes to hand your keys to a technician.

“Not everyone out there loves shelling out money for tires, but it’s a necessity in order to stay safe and not have a blowout on the road,” says Anthony Lucci, Marketing Director of Jack Williams Tire. “People are always short on time now. We just want to try to make it easier for the customer to get the things done that need to be done.”

Out-Teach the Competition

One way to be remarkable is to out-teach the competition. What does that mean? Offer stellar product education to your customers as a service.

Apple Store

While the Apple Store may have been around long enough that it doesn’t feel remarkable, it’s still noteworthy because it shattered expectations on so many fronts: design, product, and customer experience.

Whether you’re a fan of Apple products or not, you have to appreciate the experience Apple has created with the Apple store. The design is apparent in every detail, from the products to presentation. And beyond. They’ve created a reason to visit their physical location: product support and education.

This last part pivots on their employees. One thing is clear—Apple employees sure love talking about Apple products.

Apple not only hires people who are passionate, they’ve also famously trained them on communicating effectively with a wide range of skill levels, and anticipating customer needs. So think of the best teacher you ever had, and then drop them in a retail store that fixes the stuff you bought there. Kind of hard to beat.


How could a mail-order electronics company—that started in a time before the internet—be successful while charging higher prices with limited inventory and average shipping times? They out-taught the competition.

In 1974, when Bill Crutchfield was able to find anyone to upgrade the car stereo in his Porsche 356 coupe he realized there was an opportunity to sell car stereo electronics to a DIY market. If you’ve ever purchased electronics or speakers for your car, you’ve probably heard of Crutchfield. Is it because Crutchfield has the best prices? Nope. In fact, their prices have historically been higher than most. Is it because they have the best selection? Not really. While they have a great selection, they don’t carry every brand. Is it because they have fast shipping? Not even that.

Bill Crutchfield decided to do what his competition couldn’t. He knew that Radio Shack, Best Buy, Walmart, and Circuit City could certainly put the same products on their shelves, but they could never know as much about specific applications as he could. Crutchfield began blueprinting every vehicle that had ever been made and created a database of vehicle-specific application data that could be referenced by their customer service agents.

These agents were not your average customer service staff. They were hobbyists and technicians with a passion for car stereo equipment (think Apple Store genius for car stereo). If you called Crutchfield in the 80’s (and still today) you would get someone who could talk your ear off about your car and the exact setup you should have.

Crutchfield took it a step further because certain cars require special equipment (brackets, plates, screws, etc) to properly install the equipment like the pros. Crutchfield made these extra pieces (which cost them a few cents) and threw them in free if you ordered for them. The alternative to this is you and uncle Bob would be trying to fire up the ol’ router to try to make a terrible looking version of the same bracket yourselves.

Because Bill Crutchfield understood his customer so well, he also knew that most people trying to install their own car stereo equipment knew very little about how to do it. Knowing this, Crutchfield would also send along well designed blueprint-like instructions on how to install the specific product in your specific car.

The confidence that Crutchfield gave to the novice was part of what enabled the car stereo craze starting in the 80’s. Now when you feel a vehicle driving by that has subwoofers loud enough to rattle your fillings, you can thank Bill Crutchfield. Crutchfield today remains to be a very successful e-commerce electronics company that employs 500 people. And yes, they still provide excellent education on all of the products they sell.

Make Friends out of Enemies

Too many businesses take a foolish fisherman’s approach to losing customers. They believe that if they lose a customer it’s no big deal because there are plenty of fish in the sea. But just like fish, customers talk and over time they wise up.

A whopping 91% of customers unhappy with a visit to a business won’t return (Lee Resources). And according to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, those customers will typically tell 9 to 15 people. How would your business fare if these stats hold true? Most businesses can’t afford this type of negative headwind.

Dental Depot

If you’re from central Oklahoma, you’ve probably heard of Dental Depot. They have 17 locations across Oklahoma, Texas, and Arizona. They provide— you guessed it—full service dentistry as well as orthodontics, oral surgery, and dental implants.

Up until a few years ago, when they got negative reviews, it was disappointing, but no one knew what to do and there was no one in charge of reacting, either. That is until Shelby Wyatt came on board. With a strong belief in the power of reviews, she decided to take on the task of addressing the bad ones. “People look to reviews as much as word-of- mouth” she said in a recent interview.

Managing the dozens of reviews the company receives, however, was a complicated task.

She turned Podium for help. Now, all the reviews she receives from disparate sources filter to one dashboard. When she gets a message she can almost instantly respond with: “Hi, my name is Shelby, I handle patient feedback. Let me know what’s going on.”

Sometimes, just the fact that she’s a real person answering the message changes the conversation entirely. What’s more, because she’s a relatively neutral observer—she didn’t witness whatever it was that upset the customer and so doesn’t feel as personally attached to the outcome as a technician or manager might—she’s able to deescalate the situation. “As soon as patients realize that I am there to advocate for them, it not only makes them happier, but we’re typically able to find a solution that will work.”

Without realizing it, by empowering a position like Wyatt’s, Dental Depot created a system that promotes both customer satisfaction and company growth as it gets to learn from and reacts to customer feedback.

Create a VIP Option

We all get annoyed by the friend who says, “It’s OK, they know me here.” But secretly we’re all kinda jealous, right?

“Nah, I’ll pass on the VIP treatment.”

– No One Ever

Many businesses are missing an opportunity by no creating a VIP program. And guess what? VIP can mean a lot of things.

National Car Rental

Sometimes remarkable and VIP is simple. In the early 2000s, National Car Rental did just that. They did something simple—they made a VIP program that let you pick the kind of car you rented.

They called it the Emerald Aisle. The deal was, if you rented and paid for a mid-size car, you could pick anything on the Emerald Aisle. Even…a minivan! [Gasp.]

How much did this cost National? Almost nothing. And what did they gain? Insanely loyal customers.

Do What Amazon, Nordstrom, and Walmart Can’t

Quiz question: What can you do that Amazon can’t?

A. Answer phone.
B. Shoot a quick text in answer to a question.

C. Hand curate the best products in a category.

D. Be a human with a personality.
E. All of the above

If you guessed, E — All of the above, you’re right! Amazon can do many amazing things with their revenue, infrastructure, and technology, but there are several things that they’ll never be able to do that you can. Which, in fact, are the reasons you’ll be able to be remarkable in comparison.

McGee & Company

McGee & Company is a fast-growing home furnishings retailer and interior design company founded by Syd and Shea McGee in 2014. Their Costa Mesa, California destination storefront and e-commerce site has seen an 80% year-over-year growth rate. The largest growth has been on their e-commerce site where all items are hand-curated by Shea who is the Creative Director and co-founder of the company.

And nothing on the McGee site ships in less than 3 weeks. But customers are willing to wait.

Why? Because as Teresa Keck, the Director of Customer Experience says, all pieces are “high-end and long-lasting,” but also because they offer remarkable customer service.

A lot of their following developed on social media, so their customers now ask questions on all platforms—Instagram and Facebook, as well as email and phone. They’ve used Podium to help funnel all communications to text.

“Our goal is to respond to our customers in 4 to 7 minutes,” Teresa says about their communication strategy. “We want to make sure that we’re always available to our customers.

When you reach out via social media because you have a question about something you’ve seen on a post and the company answers back within a couple of minutes, you’re like, ‘OK, whoa. These are real people’ or ‘This is a real brand and they really do want to be in touch with me’.”

Be Wherever, Whenever, However

We’ve already talked about how customers are expecting the showroom to come to them. Now, let’s take the idea one step further. Some customers don’t even want to talk to you unless it is wherever, whenever, and however they want it.

To help emphasize the point, let’s call back some of our friends we’ve already heard from.

Anthony from Jack Williams Tire says a current trend is that “people don’t want to talk on the phone as much anymore.”

Brent from Valley Immediate Care says that you need to “catch people wherever they are. Patients want to be met where they want to be met when they want to be met with whatever services they desire.

Tina from Van Horn Automotive Group would add that you “need to meet the customer where they want to be met.”

Sounds like these remarkable businesses are converging around the same idea. It’s no longer on their terms, it’s on ours as the customer. Let’s take one last look at how a business you might not expect to be meeting the customer on their term is doing just that.

person looking at SMS and email

R&J Jewelry

Angel Manzano and his wife are taking over the family business, a pawn shop, which his parents started in the ’70s. They provide immediate cash and short-term loans based on collateral. They also have a retail side of their business, but unlike the typical pawn shop they only focus on jewelry, watches, handbags, diamonds, gold, or silver.

For Angel, business used to be entirely over the phone with the occasional text. Recently Angel adopted Podium to create a central messaging system. The result? A lot more business. What he didn’t anticipate was that customers were more willing to pawn their stuff if they could retain the anonymity of a text or messaging system.

“Customers like some anonymity,” he says. This change in service has created some interesting social expectations and challenges. One of them is the level of responsiveness to customer inquiries. “With text messaging comes the expectation that you’re going to get a response pretty quick,” says Angel. “Customers want the simplest, easiest, fastest way to connect with somebody and they want to talk to a real person.”

04. The End is the Beginning

Only you know your customers well enough to architect the right strategy from here. A good place to start would be to imagine how your customers might fill in the blanks of the following sentences

Have you tried [name of your business]? They _________.
Did you know [name of your business] had ___________, it’s amazing!

I use [name of your business] because _________.

We wish you well on your journey. Since we began with a Bonnie/Will Ferrell quote, it’s only appropriate that we should also end with one, so “let’s give ‘em somethin’ to talk about.”

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