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The 24/7 Customer Evangelist: A decade from across the dining room table

The final sermon: a non-sectarian customer and brand evangelist puts people before the product, stories before the sell; together, we might just make it to heaven.

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Last Friday was my last day as the 24/7, card-carrying Customer Evangelist for Bike Friday. And here is the last, perhaps best thing I did, ironically, a week after I left. A Customer Evangelist is guilty until proven incurable of keeping the faith.

I’ve wrapped up almost 9 years as spokesperson, chief content creator, videoblogger, community cheerleader, B2B enabler, interviewer, corporate tchotchke designer.

In my talks I quip that I’ve taken relationship marketing to the nth degree – home staying for extended periods with customers as a surrogate daughter/aunt/sister/shrink. I was scolded by a customer once (“get off that cellphone, you’re as bad as my daughter”). Strewth, I once camped out in the same hotel bed with a customer to save money in NYC.

I did more, but for that you’ll have to wade through 12,000 pieces of content I created at bikefriday.com.

So what did I learn from a place where no conventional marketer would dare tread? and why this is bad. Some memories …

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Be social and the networking will follow
In this post I pointed out that word of mouth marketing isn’t new. But deploying it as a serious business survival tool is cluey in a recession, and a natural extension of where customers now congregate: in online communities. Your customers love you, it follows that they want you to stick around, right?
A lack of marketing budget to partake in a trade show inspired me to humbly appeal to customers for help. What resulted was a 100% customer staffed and supplied booth on a sunny Saturday when they could have been doing anything else. Some were drawn by the company’s long history of personal and personable service. Others were inspired by a shorter history of  experiencing a product that actually works. Maybe I twisted some arms real good. However, coerce with caution, because …

Sob stories need the “right” amount of information
In Honesty vs Oversharing: The Fine Copy Line  I made a case study of an email that got me squirming on impact, then wondering why. Is it OK to bare your bar charts in the hope that your customers will rush to your aid? Unless you’re a human rights or child smuggling watchdog organization, there is line in the sand you’d best not cross. Unless you’re a divorce lawyer, customers associate you with the good times (and even then, a divorce lawyer can focus on the better times to come). You need to keep them rolling, not recoiling, during bad times. I strongly believe that if you provide a good service, you may reach out to your supporters for more help. Just tell them how it really is – say it straight but great.  I like the way Idealist does it.

Listen with ears on eight sides of your head
My somewhat contentious post Don’t talk about kids to people without kids wasn’t about kids at all, but like statements involving religion, politics and small furry animals, it was bound to get knickers in a knot. The message was simply this: before you open your mouth, bang out that email, run rampant with that dark thought  – step into the shoes and socks of the other party. What’s in it for them? Why should they care? What’s going on with them anyway? This isn’t as easy as it seems in a world of All About Me, where blogging makes you a legend in your own lunchtime. But if you can step back, leave a void, let the other party  step in, you might also see that …

Your customer’s business is your business
So, When did you last give your customer some business? Say what? I’m talking about the old adage of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. Done wrong it’s called nepotism. Done right, it’s a beautiful thing.  If your customer is buying your product, help them do it again. Link to their website. Give them a leg up.

Whoa, and let Google pull down my ranking because they’re a nobody and we’re a somebody? Well, remember they are customer you already have and hold, ahead of the tire kickers you’re trying to corral. Balance your voracity for unique visitors by simply being of service. Remember ye olde marketing maxim:  It costs roughly five times more to obtain a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. 

And resist that secret loathing of seeing others succeed as in, “every time my friend succeeds I die a little (Gore Vidal).”  To those bicycle advocacy organizatons who are loathe to endorse brands, I have news for you: If it weren’t for bicycle makers, there would be no bicycle advocacy … because there would be no bicycles. Huh?

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… and your customer’s life is your life.
A customer was facing numerous health problems, including an impending double hip replacement. He worried me with his “terminal” conversations. I appealed to our community to write to him, call him, email him, with their experiences. Some called personally from overseas.
He called to chastise me. “What have you done to me?” he barked.
“You know I hate email, now I have to respond.”
Later: “It was a godsend.”
I have gone above and beyond like this for several customers in different situations, including some matchmaking. I inherited the latter from my boss, who said, “If you’re happily partnered, wouldn’t you want that for your friend? It’s a friend’s duty to help find a friend a life partner.”
There is no shop counter between a Customer Evangelist and his/her customers. You can make a difference to people beyond the transaction, a difference that can be more enriching than the biggest Wall Street bonus. And in the absence of the latter for the rest of us, you might as well.

Your “intermediate” customers are important too
Collaboration between a bike maker, a distributer and a supermarket | Video
B2B advertising has long been the unsexy cousin of B2C. But as Rick Segal of B2B specialist GyroHSR points out, “we’ve been doing social networking since day one” i.e. involving every member on the widget maker’s team in the marketing effort. Your community is potentially made up of everyone from you to the customer and the customer’s customer’s friend’s cousin’s parrot – and don’t forget your colleages working 9 to 5 back at the office either (what I call “business to internal”). You’re out on the road looking like you’re having a whale of a time and they’re back with their faces in a glowering screen or welding torch. Internal envy and begrudging will retard a business. You need to champion each other as a single, apolitical unit for your company to truly succeed.

Re-think fancy schmancy ads:  The story is the strategy. The conversation is the creative.
You don’t have to do ads. Those try-hard wacky ads, the self-conscious, nauseatingly sincere ads, those boring ads. MUTE is currently the most worn-out/broken button on remote controls across the country.  Radio Shack is laughing. The answer lies in the treasure trove of stories that comes free with every customer.
Eclectic e-tailer REMO knows all about stories – he’s one himself. Access that trove of tales by listening, asking, listening, relating, and listening. Transcribe and share those stories. They are free, rich content and therefore, advertising. Partake in that conversation, and make sure the rudder steering your social media ship is a true brand custodian, not merely a hyperactive intern.

Don’t use the P-word. Ever.
Policy is a dirty word.

Beware the blindside of life.
This item has hairs on it so read at your peril. A true customer evangelist is up front and personal.  You’re not a cog in the machine, but a lever with the giant red knob and a flashing light. You are going to be a sitting duck for judgement. Inside the office, my self-directed schedule incurred some natural envy among 8-to-fivers. Outside the office, my genderless camaraderie incurred the disapproval of wives and girlfriends.  For the former problem, work out how you can help colleagues be their best. My videos and stories became the bridge between the widget maker and the customer. For the latter, stop being so damn interesting.  Remember you are living out loud – stop often to examine the wake you are leaving behind you.

I got it! The most important response of all.
The origin …
She: Do you think she’s more attractive than me?
He: No response
and why this is bad.

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There’s more of course, which is why there’s never a shortage of “believe me, this is the way” business books. So where to now? Onwards, to find the next place to eat, sleep, breathe the life of a 24/7 Customer Evangelist.

Thank you Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell, the original “evangelist’s evangelists” at Creating Customer Evangelists who propelled me to the CE pulpit with this article.

About the author

Lynette Chiang is an award-winning copywriter, brand evangelist, social media community manager, filmmaker, solo world bicycle adventurer and inventor of useful things. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Harvard University curriculums, the New York Times Book Review, FastCompany and the relationship marketing business press.

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