No Marketing Budget? No Problem

Is it possible to get better at marketing your business without bulking up your marketing budget?

The idea may sound unlikely, but it really can be done if you can turn your customers into your own "street team" that can help do your marketing for you.

That's because your customers are already out there talking about their experiences. Today customers are able to broadcast and share their opinions about service more widely and rapidly than ever before through digital, social and mobile channels. Whether this democratization of service translates into a boost for your business or a bad reputation is your call.

Case in point: In American Express's most recent Customer Service Barometer survey, we found that Americans tell an average of 15 people about their positive service experiences. (On the other hand, they'll tell an average of 24 people about poor experiences.) Your goal as a business owner or entrepreneur should be to meet that positive average -- and try to beat it!

Here's some good news to get you started down the road to blowing past the magic number 15: We know from the same Barometer research that consumers are predisposed to seek out small businesses for great service experiences. About four out of five Americans say that small businesses put more emphasis on service than large companies.

We've learned an incredible amount about how to use service to transform customers into loyal brand advocates over the last few years here at American Express. And even though we run a very large service organization, there are a number of key tips that we've picked up along the way that can apply to just about any business looking to convert customers into promoters. I'd like to share just a few of these.

1) Build your foundation on service: Delivering great service is about an attitude and a state of mind -- a deep, personal focus on listening closely to customers, really probing and understanding their needs, and then delivering on the promises you make. But it's tough for this to happen if you don't put service at the heart of everything you do.

2) Select the will then teach the skill -- obviously, skills matter. But skills can be learned. It's much more difficult to take a person who's not oriented toward listening and engaging with customers and try to mold them into something they're not. One thing we learned in our own business is that selecting service savvy folks leads to much better experiences for our customers than our old approach, which paid more attention to whether someone had specific technical experience. We know how to teach the right skills but it's all for naught without the heart and the passion of a service champion.

3) It's all about relationships: When a customer has a question or a complaint, it might seem like just another issue to add to the list of about a million things that you as a business owner or your hard-working employees have to deal with every day. The temptation is to answer that question as quickly as possible and then move on.

But wait a minute... you've got a customer coming to you, asking for assistance and proactively engaging with your company. That's not a burden. It's a golden opportunity to build a stronger personal relationship by actively listening to that customer, engaging with them and helping them understand more about what you can do to meet their needs.

We've done this ourselves at American Express. We used to answer customer questions and churn through transactions -- like changing an address or requesting a new card -- as quickly as we could. "Time is money", went the old thinking. Then we realized we were missing out on a great chance to ask our customers what else we could do to help them, and to make sure they knew how to get the most out of their card. We started building better relationships and as a result, customers started using us more and telling their friends to use us too. It turned out that the conventional wisdom was wrong, and that relationships were key.

These are just a few of the ways you can tap into the unprecedented power of today's customer and help them become your strongest supporters without spending an extra dime on traditional marketing.