Putting your Money (and Effort) Where Their Mouth Is

Why a customer’s most important contribution to your business happens when they leave

You have probably heard the truism that it is easier to retain an existing customer than to get a new one. After all, they have already demonstrated an interest in your business (books) and what you have to offer (expertise and a great shopping experience).

But it’s not enough just to keep the same customers at a time when increasing price pressures, changes in reading behavior, and aggressive competition keep eroding the bottom line.

You need to capture new customers to grow.

Your existing customers are the key to growth, because they possess the most powerful marketing tool you have if you know how to unlock it: word-of-mouth referral.

In its most recent Trust in Advertising report, Nielsen polled 26,000+ global consumers, and found that “overall consumers trust other consumers more than anything else! 78% of respondents said they trusted … the recommendation of other consumers.” (What media is next, you ask? Newspapers with just 63%.)

Furthermore, according to Nielsen, North American consumers lead the world in trust when it comes to consumer generated online content and reviews. (In other words, we actually read customer reviews on Amazon and the like.)

I know, I know. Word-of-mouth blah, blah, blah. Sunshine, puppies, and cookies all around. EVERYONE knows that you want good word of mouth.

So—if everyone knows it, and it is more effective by a long shot, how many of you actually have a plan to go after word of mouth referrals logically and consistently as a part of your regular business and marketing strategy?

That’s what I thought. It’s time to get started, and here’s how.

In this excellent online article, marketing expert Daryl T. Logullo lays out five basic strategies for consistently building good word-of-mouth from existing customers. Logullo, who specializes in referral building, makes the point that a good marketing strategy should include consistent steps to encourage referrals. Although his article is geared generally to B2B companies, his suggestions are incredibly useful when viewed through the bookstore lens.

Below is my take on Daryl’s advice, and I’m going to provide some specific Action Steps just for us booksellers.

1. Focus on ensuring your colleagues, clients, and customers fully understand all of your products and service offerings

You may assume that your employees, business partners, and existing customers understand what your expertise is, and how much work is behind your selection and service. Sure, you sell interesting titles, the staff makes great recommendations, and the store is thoughtfully arranged. You do events. You donate to schools. You hustle, bustle, and are always in the store. Isn’t it obvious how much hard work is going on?

Maybe not. For instance, do your staff and customers know how many books are published annually (18K or more), and how you make your selections from that onslaught? What you look for in a book you select for the store? Do they know what review media you monitor? How many galleys you read? Do they know how many pounds of books you unpack every year? How many dollars you donate to local causes? Who your staff are, and how they got into the business? Does your store have a “story”?

Action step: Write a story for the store. It could be a season in the life of a bookseller, or fun “stat. sheet” for the store that playfully lists statistics about the sheer volume of information and material you process every year. Share it with customers in as many ways as possible. Make a staff profiles feature. Give everyone a glimpse into what it takes to provide your customers with your unique services. Impress them with your valuable work.

2. Actively communicate to every customer your desire for good word of mouth.

Sometimes we feel icky about tapping existing customers to get new ones. We’re worried it will be too heavy-handed. Overcome this by making your desire a positive feature of your service and deliver it with a smile: as an independent business, you strive to provide the best service/experience to your community, and nothing is more meaningful than a referral from an existing customer. Look for opportunities to reward customers for referrals. Make VIP events, programs, and coupons for referrals from existing customers in your database. Whatever you do, make it systematic and consistent. Leverage that powerful consumer to consumer trust.

Action step: Make it a priority to communicate to customers the fact that you want to grow and better serve the community, and that you actively want their feedback and referrals. Develop a sign or simple sentence, explain why and empower staff to use it, and make it a central part of your message.

3. Encourage in-person referrals from your customer base by developing “bring-a-friend” programming.

Nothing sticks like an in-person referral, where someone new is introduced to you or your business by someone who already knows you. So, create opportunities to make that happen. 2-for-1 event tickets, or VIP parties and kids events for customers and their friends. Teacher nights, where a school contact organizes a function to bring you in front of staff for a book talk. Seasonal in-store book talks for parent groups. Look for any opportunity where you can be introduced to new people as a “trusted resource”. These will reward you with tons of new contacts. Capture information, capture information, capture information.

Action step: Call your local school, and offer to do a free training for staff on the newest titles of the season. Give your expertise away honestly and with enthusiasm, and you will soon find those people coming through your door.

4. Seek value “reinforcement statements” from current clients and associates—think of the “Two-Ps”: Phrases and Praises

There is a reason why publishers place review quotes and blurbs on their books. They encourage customers to buy. Have you ever considered the same strategy for your store? Do you capture great quotes for use on your marketing materials and your displays? You should actively listen for and solicit great quotes about your business. This is the best kind of word-of-mouth. The kind that you can use over and over.

Action step: Make a comment/visitor book, and regularly look for “quotable quotes”. Ask your best customers to rate you on a survey card, and talk about what they like (and think needs improvement.) That way you get quotes, and find out what you can do better.

5. Focus on becoming better friends and continue to build a relationship with clients, customers, and colleagues by anticipating needs

If you haven’t yet read Danny Meyer’s wonderful book Setting the Table, do it. Make your staff read it too. He does an amazing job of explaining why, in today’s market, successful businesses must move beyond “service” to “hospitality” in everything they do. Hospitality is a relationship that is built on “active listening”, where a customer feels they are truly understood and then cared for. This creates a feeling of emotional satisfaction that is the cornerstone of repeat business, loyalty, and good word of mouth. One of the ways we as booksellers can provide this level of hospitality is by providing extra information on topics that interest our customers. Value-added, low-cost items like give-away copies of articles and book lists, reviews, information on child development etc. Most importantly, letting customer suggestions and requests inspire new features, and then letting them know where the idea came from is a great way to build an authentic relationship with your customer base.

Action step: Add a resource section to the store specifically for articles and materials of interest that enhance your customer’s experience and knowledge.



Kristen McLean is the Executive Director of The Association of Booksellers for Children. At various points in her career, Kristen has been a children’s marketing manager in a big publishing house, a toy and book rep, a merchandise manager and buyer for an independent toystore, the director of a theatre, a costume and set designer, a professional puppeteer, a wild animal handler, and a voracious childhood reader. You can reach her here.


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