What is it that makes your product sell? Where are your new customers coming from? Ideally, you have several answers – a great product or service, a strong marketing plan, and programs designed to bring in new faces. But one of most important elements of growing your customer base is actually your customers themselves. It’s no longer enough to just get the word out – people want evaluations of brands from people they trust. That’s where customer advocacy comes in.
In a nutshell, “customer advocacy” is when prospective clients or customers first learn about your company from their peers – ie, your current satisfied clients or customers. Satisfied clients or customers can help move your products and tout your services in a more authentic way than paid advertising. Customer advocacy may involve friends chatting over coffee or being mentioned in a popular blog. Either way, prospective customers are hearing about you from their peers.
Customer advocacy is especially important to Millennials, who are prone to distrust marketing and rely heavily on peer reviews. One study asked Millennials to rate the trustworthiness of different sources of brand information on a scale of 1-5. They rated their closest friends as a 4 – advertising scored just 2.2.
So how do you bring this kind of grassroots attention to your business? Having a great product is a good start, but one of the best ways is to get active in your community. When you’re advocating for your customers, they’ll advocate for you! It’s a great way to get your name out there and let people know that you’re here to meet their needs. Let’s take a look at three small businesses that have gotten involved in their communities and ended up with strong customer advocates.
Case Study #1: Stacy Watnick / Stacy W. Buhbe, Ph.D Psychologist
Location: San Diego, CA
Impact on Local Community: Mental health services for the local LGBTQ community
Stacy Watnick, Ph.D first began her career as a psychologist at The Center in San Diego. The Center is one of the largest LGBTQ community centers in the US. After starting a family, Dr. Watnick decided to branch out into private practice, specializing in issues related to the LGBTQ community.
When Dr. Watnick needed funding to expand her business, she pursued capital through the Hartford and Accion partnership. Additional funding set Dr. Watnick on the path to further her businesses’ technical competency and pursue additional business training.
Dr. Watnick knows that there’s a unique need in the LGBTQ community for mental health services and focuses on that need in her private practice. Crucially, she has also maintained ties with The Center by offering them pro bono services. She also helps to educate intern as they train to become licensed therapists and provides education, support, and advocacy to families impacted by HIV/Aids.
Dr. Watnick has used her background and education to help others in a meaningful way. That alone is a great start to generating customer advocacy – she’s passionate about her work and is doing good things for her community. And continuing to work with The Center takes it a step further, allowing her to work with community members that can pass the word along about her services. Maintaining a high level of services and staying active in the community is a great way to get your customers excited about your brand, and that means they’ll pass your name along.
Case Study #2: Peter Bourque, Counseling Centers of New England
Location: Avon, CT
Impact on Local Community: Providing counseling services to individuals coping with addiction and other issues
Peter Bourque is the founder and owner of the Counseling Centers of New England. Peter’s passion for counseling and advocacy were fueled by challenges he overcame early in his own life. Peter struggled with addiction as a teen, subsequently dropping out of high school at a young age.
As an adult, Peter finally sought sobriety with the help of a counseling center. He then when on to finish his education so he could later head up his own company helping others who struggle with psychiatric conditions, drugs, alcohol, and addiction. His own experiences with addiction and sobriety allow Peter to connect with these individuals on a personal level.
When Peter opened the Counseling Centers of New England, his focus was on finding the top practitioners to deliver high-quality care for this clients. As Peter recalls, “I searched for the best clinicians I knew and tried to convince them to join.” Peter knew that by hiring the best people to help counsel clients, his business would grow based on word-of-mouth referrals from grateful patients. This hunch was right!
Peter’s drive and vision has since paid off. To date, The Counseling Center of New England has expanded to two offices and now delivers top-notch care to approximately 1,300 patients. The most impressive part: Peter never even ran any advertising to grow his business or spread the word about the services offered at the The Counseling Center.
Peter attributes his success entirely to word-of-mouth client referrals from those who’ve had their lives turned around for the better. Peter knows that his services make a huge impact on his local community. Since New England’s addiction numbers are at critical levels, The Counseling Center of New England has been able to fulfill a crucial need in the local community. Doing great work and serving a good cause means clients come to him.
Case Study #3: Mariel Cota, San Diego Flower Solutions
Location: San Diego, CA
Impact on Local Community: Local activist and mentor for victims of domestic violence
Mariel Cota survived domestic violence and an abusive relationship. Rather than letting the experience defeat her, Mariel channeled her traumatic experiences into a career helping abused women overcome their own trauma. Her new business has given her a positive focus, as well as a way to support herself and her children.
Mariel was involved in an abusive relationship for over a decade. When she escaped, she found herself homeless – and she had children to support. Through the help of YWCA and Access, Inc, Mariel was able find shelter for her family, as well as vital legal assistance. The experience left Mariel in a precarious financial situation, so she took action.
Realizing that she had to do something to support herself and her family, Mariel decided to start her own business. She then enrolled in the Accion Academy, an intensive, hands-on training program for aspiring entrepreneurs. The Accion Academy taught Mariel practical financial management tools and business skills so she could launch her own business with confidence.
Her enrollment in the Accion Academy also opened the door for a small business loan through Accion. Empowered with education, training, and small business funding, Mariel opened the doors to her own venture, San Diego Flower Solutions.
Mariel now helps others thrive after overcoming abusive situations. She works with the local community in many ways – including through organizations such as Leap to Success, caregiving through Respite, and through sharing her story with other women impacted by abuse. Her passion helps fuel her mentoring efforts, and she knows that she’s now in a position to give back to others.
Mariel’s also committed to growing her business through customer advocacy. She’s well-known in the community and that means she gets plenty of referrals and grassroots support from the community.
Customer Advocacy Comes From Business Advocacy
Without the community, your business couldn’t thrive. Giving back is a way to respect that connection. And as these three entrepreneurs know, it’s also good business! When you care about your customers and your community, they’ll care about you and your business. And they’ll pass the word along to their friends and family.
Your business model might lend itself naturally to certain kinds of advocacy, like counseling services. But other models also have plenty of ways to give back. For example, you can always sponsor community events like block parties, street fairs, and holiday events. You can also sponsor local sports teams (the Little League Team is a classic), offer internships to help young people learn important job skills, or make a commitment to hiring an underserved group (like at-risk youth or single mothers). And donating your personal time is also a great way to do good, build goodwill, and encourage your current customers to go out and spread the word about your business.
We’re seeing a real shift in brand perception in recent years. People care more and more about the stories behind brands and how they operate. And that’s a great opportunity for you – advocate for your customers and they’ll advocate for you!
Accion loans to these community-minded entrepreneurs were made possible thanks to support from The Hartford, which focuses on helping neighborhood businesses thrive.