People telling others about their positive experiences with your business sends a far more powerful marketing message than any advertisement. Word of mouth is credible, personal and admiring. The best advertising cannot match that. Word of mouth is also free, so it is a great marketing medium and deserves more attention that it normally gets.

You cannot simply ask people to talk about your business. Larger organisations use ‘brand ambassadors’ to promote their products. The audience knows the brand ambassador is being paid to promote the products, so the message lacks credibility – it is not true word of mouth. Few of us will tell others about a reasonably good experience with a supplier, unless we are asked for a recommendation. How then can your business use this valuable marketing tool?

The best example I know comes from many years ago when I routinely bought lunch at a deli called The Shop Around the Corner in downtown Johannesburg. Their pizza slices came from large round pizzas, roughly cut into segments, and every time I bought one the counter hand would carefully select the biggest one on the tray for me. That felt great! I soon realised that every customer got the biggest available slice. When the slices ran low a fresh pizza was cut and the slices added; the process of serving the biggest slice first continued. I talked to many people about how wonderful their service was and I am sure many others did too. I am still talking about it almost thirty years later. Total cost of this exercise – one pizza slice every lunchtime. The Shop Around the Corner is still there, through all the changes in central Johannesburg, under the same ownership. With that great customer service, good food and smart marketing, I am not surprised. Learn from them.

Another example uses technology. Hotel systems may show the reception clerk details of your previous stay, if you used room service, your room number, specialised diet requirements and other information. A receptionist recently said to me when I checked in “Nice to see you back Mr Hatton, on your last visit your room overlooked the gardens, would you like a similar room?” and then “Will you be paying by ……… card again? You dined with us last time, may I reserve a table for you tonight?” Simple, relatively inexpensive and makes me feel really important, and likely to recommend their hotel. Your business probably has that kind of detail about your customers – why not use it?

The message is that, if you give your customer a very special experience, they will talk positively about you. This is especially true if your make them feel recognised and special. Your challenge is to think about how you can achieve that. It does not have to be gimmicky, it could be the best value for money, the way you treat customer’s children, the shortness of queues. Think about the things that annoy you when you are a customer and find ways to turn them from painful to delightful in your business, so that you stand out from competitors.

The effects of the social media revolution have magnified the opportunities gained by positive word of mouth. It is no longer unusual for customers to travel long distances, even internationally, to do business with a business they heard about on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true – bad news now travels faster and goes further. It is unwise to offend customers and beneficial to treat them especially well. On the consumer website Hello Peter there are few compliments among the ocean of dissatisfaction, and it is striking how many of the compliments refer to an individual or group within an organisation going out of their way to please a customer. Your people are really important, and how they treat customers can change the fortunes of your business.

This article was written by consultant Ed Hatton. See for more information. Ed’s business advice blog is at