Contact: Saul Colt, 'Head of Magic' at FreshBooks
Location: Toronto, Ontario Canada
Industry: Small business services
Annual revenue: Confidential
Number of employees: 28
What's the quickest way to a small-business owner's heart? Make his or her life easier.
Toronto-based FreshBooks was founded on that idea—specifically, taking the pain out of small-business expense tracking, billing, and invoicing. That service, however, is not all that has made the company what it is today.
While businesses around the globe have been faltering, five-year-old FreshBooks has grown from close to 300,000 users to over 750,000 in the past year, and much of that can be strictly attributed to word-of-mouth.
How'd they do it? Through a level of service that might best be described as refreshing.
"We treat our customers better than they've ever been treated, or expected to be treated, and we live up to everything we say we're going to do. We're overly attentive to listening to our customers, and we do fun and interesting things. That surprises people, and they talk about it," explained Saul Colt, who leads the company's word-of-mouth marketing efforts under the official title of Head of Magic. "It's so simple and ridiculously obvious, but for some reason more companies don't do it."
Read on for specific examples of how this online service vendor is keeping customers and winning over new ones, and getting a healthy dose of personal endorsements in the process.
FreshBooks is an online invoicing and time-tracking service targeting freelancers and small businesses.
"It's not the most interesting thing in the world…not something people will likely run around and talk about on their own," admitted Colt.
Yet, the company has set out to make it just that: something everyone can—and does—talk about, whether they actually use, or even need, the service.
The true success of FreshBooks has come from its commitment to forging real relationships with customers, potential customers, and others.
FreshBooks uses social media, especially Twitter—where it has over 3,300 followers—to make connections with users on the Web.
On Twitter the company uses movie-quote contests and party invites to engage with customers and non-customers alike and to open the door to new conversations and relationships.
Moreover, FreshBooks has found Twitter to be an effective platform for listening to customers and other users and for getting to know them as real-world people. It then goes out of its way to respond to those people's needs, whether personal or professional.
Examples include making donations toward users' walks for charity, sending small gifts when someone has a baby, or flowers when someone has a bad day, or even just mailing off a funny story to brighten someone's day.
"Our goal is to make our customers happy, personally and professionally. We're available for advice, friendship, everything," said Colt. "The value of this is immeasurable if it is coming from a genuine place, and you make a connection with your customers."
Company employees traveling on business regularly host dinners for up to 30 local customers and influencers in the cities they visit. They've also been known to drive, rather than fly, to conferences in order to meet up with as many customers as possible during the trip.
At one such conference, they also used the company RV as a party shuttle and offered attendees hangover kits, along with a free pancake breakfast in the morning.
"We don't make it about us, we make it about other people, using whatever small influence we have to prop up our customers," said Colt. "If they have better results, they will tell everyone about our service."
For instance, in March the company made up a series of "Internet All-Star" baseball cards featuring many of its customers with "shiny Internet personalities," then handed them out at the South by Southwest (SXSW) 2009 conference.
FreshBooks also uses various opportunities—including its on-site user forums and weekly email newsletter, as well as in-person meetings—to garner feedback and solicit recommendations from its users.
"We rely on them for advice and suggestions, too. We make them a part of our company, and that makes everyone feel good and spread the word," said Colt.
FreshBooks had close to 300,000 customers about this time last year and now has over 750,000 users, according to Colt.
"We have amazing relationships with a lot of our customers, and through these relationships we have helped to grow the company exponentially," said Colt. "It all came from treating customers as best we could."
- Customers are a business's most valuable resource. "Never take them for granted," said Colt. "If they care about your product and are passionate about it, they will champion it everywhere they go."
- Non-customers can prove to be just as valuable. "We care about people, whether they're using our service or not, and nothing stops us from talking to people who will never ever use our service," said Colt. "They can still tell ten friends about something cool we did."
- Generating great word-of-mouth is not a distinct marketing campaign; it's an everyday, ongoing part of the business. "It's our lifestyle," said Colt. "There's never a time limit or an expiry date. It's a lifetime commitment."
- It's okay to ask for referrals. "We ask people to please tell a friend," said Colt. "We don't take for granted that it will happen by itself."
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