Evangelists, Apostles and Profits

A couple years back Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba proposed that customers could be the best sales force a company could ever have, a dedicated and ‘for free’ sales force. They wrote a best selling book about it, Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force. They pointed to companies like Southwest Airlines, Krispy Kreme, Build-A-Bear Workshops and IBM as companies enjoying just such customer loyalty. So loyal their customers go out of their way to spread the word. And not just referring their friends but proselytize them too. They are the Evangelists.

This is not just one more ‘show and tell’ business book. The authors give clear steps how a company can forge this relationship with their customers. And unlike faddish business theories that are hard to apply to everyday work, this one makes solid suggestions on how to become just such a company. Here are a few:

  • Focus on solving customer needs
  • Putting the customer's success at the heart of your business relationships
  • Making them feel special, create "clubs" and "communities" for your customers to participate
  • Creating "causes" for them to be emotionally attached to, deliver un-equalled service and show genuine interest in what they do and how you can help them to do it better. 
  • Being loyal to customers, and they will be loyal to you. Remember, customers are loyal to people, NOT products.
  • Creating genuine buzz about your company (and how to-do it)
  • Sharing knowledge openly with prospects and customers, instead of hoarding it.

If you’re CEO or Marketing Director those sound like terrific ideas, but you’re probably also thinking, “ideas that will never get past the planning stage, never appear on inspiring posters and most importantly – never impact the customer. "Skinner’s Law" would tell you: The further a customer service project is from the immediate bottom line, the less likely it will ever get upper management’s attention or support. Yes, it may be important. It’s just not urgent and that's what gets done! 

But wait --- McConnell and Huba make a final point. Creating customer Evangelists is a bottom up process not a top down one. To be a company that customers rave about stems from its culture, and is expressed through its staff as they interact with the customer, in the lobbies, the dinning rooms, on the grounds and the phone rooms. They’re not likely to meet the CEO and probably better they don’t. To have a company culture that inspires Evangelists you need to have an army of Apostles.

Hospitality is a service industry and apart from the elevators, little else mechanical can go wrong. Our employees therefore represent the brand and communicate the message. Ironically they are the ones we pay the least, most often don uniforms, wear name tags and use the service entrance. How do we get them to feel the same commitment to their job and the company as the owners and executives do? Their life goals are perhaps not as lofty, their daily problems likely more pressing; yet we rely on them to create customer Evangelists. We rely upon them to encourage our Apostles. What is the solution – a real and lasting solution?

With an eye on the bottom line and one on the bottom echelons our company undertook the task of building apostles to ultimately create evangelists. Knowing that another make shift do-it-yourself approach would . . . like the times before, lead to failure; we called on the help of Terry Schmidt, a Harvard-Business School educated management consultant. His approach was different and surprised us. He neither started at the top or at the bottom, but holistically and from the beginning. Here’s a synopsis of what he coached us through:

He first called upon us to form departmental and cross-departmental task forces to sharpen our vision and mission. “If your vision is not sharp then your future is likely dim”, Terry said, “And if you want your apostles to march in step, they need to share in discovering the mission. People tend to support what they help create”.

Each team’s task was to define a set of core values that best describe the company we wanted to be. 

A company’s brand emerges from the inside out based upon its core values and competencies. 

Terry assigned line staff and managers to work shoulder to shoulder on these heart to heart questions. A feeling of camaraderie, ‘we can-do’, individual respect and new friendships grew out of these ad hoc groups. They asked, “Who do we want to be?”

These representatives then went back to their own departments and shared their new found vision and enthusiasm. Focusing on departmental functions, they wrote their own mini-missions as part of the larger company mission. As Terry said, “When employees understand at a deep emotional level how their personal hopes and dreams can be fulfilled by delighting the customer, they willingly go the extra mile that all Apostles travel. In other words, if what’s in it for them is gained through what’s in it for the customer, then we all succeed.”

While it is too early to say whether our efforts will create the legions of company Evangelists as authors McConnell and Huba wrote, clearly the new found company enthusiasm, the empowerment and inspiration is clearly evident. Assuredly we have all become Apostles with a heartfelt stake in our company’s mission, an understanding that personal goals can be more easily reached from within a shared vision, that being a part of something is more fulfilling than being apart from something, and it’s everyone’s job to demonstrate this to the customer. I look forward to the coming of the profit.

Terry Schmidt specializes in helping companies become more strategic, productive, and profitable. He is the founder of www.ManagementPro.com and can be reached at terry@managementpro.com