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“We are encouraging our clients to fly Southwest Airlines. We are buying more stock…and we stand ready to do anything else to help. Count on our continuing support.”
--Southwest Airlines customer Ann McGee-Cooper, in an October 2001 letter to Southwest President Colleen Barrett

You are an evangelist.

You tell others what movie to see, which computer to purchase, what restaurant to visit, which dentist you prefer, which cell phone to buy, which books to read, which clubs to join. Your recommendations are sincere. Sometimes passionate.

Perhaps you did not realize that you are an evangelist--a bringer of glad tidings--but your sphere of influence does. It is made up of friends, family, colleagues and professional communities.

As our opening quote illustrates, Ann McGee-Cooper is a Southwest Airlines customer who stands by a company she loves. After the 9/11 attacks, which crippled and jeopardized airlines for months, McGee-Cooper wrote the company, informing it that she was persuading clients, friends and family members to fly Southwest Airlines.

She was purchasing tickets on their behalf. She bought the company's stock. Perhaps most tellingly, she included a $500 check with her letter, saying that the airline needed the money “more than I do.”

She is more than a loyal customer; she is a customer evangelist.

A loyal customer is often defined as one who buys from you on a regular basis. If you're an airline, loyal customers are usually defined as those who accumulate the most frequent flyer miles. If you are a grocery store, flower or sandwich shop, perhaps your loyal customers are those who live within walking or easy driving distance. Their loyalty to you may be driven by convenience or low prices. In effect, they are repeat customers, not necessarily loyal customers.

A repeat customer who purchased based on convenience or low cost can easily morph into a vigilante customer, one who spreads the word about your deplorable service to all who will listen. Once this begins, your share of their wallet begins to decline along with their goodwill.

Customer evangelism spreads by word of mouth. It spreads by word-of-mouse via email and the Internet. This is known as buzz, a potent and cyclical phenomena. Buzz lives and dies in a predictable, bell-curve model, helping to create new customers or turn off potential ones.

A customer evangelist is like a friend you've known for years. Their relationship helps support your organization through good times and bad.

What does a customer evangelist look like? How do you know if someone is extolling your virtues?

  • They purchase and believe in your product or service.
  • They are loyal and passionately recommend you to friends, neighbors and colleagues.
  • They purchase your products as gifts for others.
  • They provide unsolicited feedback or praise.
  • They forgive occasional dips in service and quality; they let you know when quality slips.
  • They are not bought; customer evangelists extol your virtues freely.
  • As your evangelist, they feel part of something bigger than themselves.

The lessons from the original evangelists--the religious believers who roam the back ways of the world to spread the word of their faith--teach us that beliefs are based on emotional connection, deep-seated convictions and the promise of a better way.

Strongly held beliefs compel many of us to tell others. To wit, the root of the word “evangelist” is based on “a bringer of the glad tidings.”

Which companies have legions of evangelists?

  • Southwest Airlines
  • Krispy Kreme Doughnuts
  • Build-A-Bear Workshop
  • The Dallas Mavericks
  • Harley-Davidson

These companies are thriving in the midst of an American economic meltdown because they have methodically focused on building the love, enthusiasm and goodwill of their customers.

Companies that successfully create customer evangelists who spread the word about their love of a company typically share six common characteristics, which we have distilled into the six tenets of customer evangelism:

1. Customer plus-delta Companies thoroughly understand what customers love about their products and services by talking to them constantly. They make it very, very easy for customers to provide continual, real-time feedback.

2. Napsterize your knowledge Named after the concept of Napster, the file-sharing service that introduced the world to one of the most efficient distribution networks ever, sharing knowledge with customers increases the perceived and actual value of a service. The more knowledge companies share with the world, the more that people will tell others about it.

3. Build the buzz Buzz works because of the energy and sincerity from a personal referral that traditional advertising cannot match. Word of mouth is 10 times more effective than television, radio or print.

4. Create community In a customer community, companies gather like-minded people who share something in common: the company. As a result, a customer community has a vested interest in the continued success of the organizer.

5. Make bite-size chunks Companies with legions of customer evangelists typically break their product and service portfolio into bite-size chunks. It easily gets products and services into their hands and minds, and builds goodwill because it provides value without requiring a large or expensive purchase.

6. Create a cause Companies that aim for something bigger than themselves--like rallying for “freedom” as Harley-Davidson and Southwest Airlines do--often find that customers, vendors, suppliers and employees naturally root for its success and the companies because of the emotional connection it creates.

Customer evangelism is not limited to consumer-product companies that live in the Fortune 1000. Customer evangelism flourishes among all industries, B-to-C, B-to-B, and in companies small, medium and large.

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Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are the authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force.