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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Word of Mouth Marketing Blunder

Recently I had to visit the eye doctor for a routine eye exam, which meant that I had to endure the dreaded NCT ("non-contact tonometer") test, also known as the eye puff test. This involves leaning in closely to a small metal gun that blasts a jet of air directly into your eye. Ostensibly, this is to measure eye pressure and test for glaucoma, and is supposed to be painless.

However, each time I have to go through with this test, I go through the following steps:

1) Patient tenses up and clenches fists

2) Patient stares down the gun, waiting for the moment of impact

3) Patent gets the blast, which is like putting your finger in an electrical socket for a half-second

4) Patient jerks head back and blinks away tears and pain

5) Patient repeats for the second eye

I'm exaggerating slightly as this is certainly not the worst medical procedure at all (I had a spinal tab in fifth grade...that was a wee bit more painful), but it's still not something I look forward to.

What struck me odd about this particular experience was that immediately following a blast to both of my eyes, the tech actually handed me two refer-a-friend coupons for new customers. She explained to me that if my friends brought this card in with my name on it, not only could they get $25 off their next service, but that I would be the lucky recipient of a $10 gift certificate to the local mall.

What's wrong with this picture?

The tech was hopeful that my recommendation would help grow their client base and build their business. I'm the first person to agree that word of mouth is the absolute best way to attract new, long-term customers; peer referrals are far more cost effective than any other program your typical ad dollars will bring in.

However, there's something to be said for timing. Giving me this special offer after you've temporarily stunned me is probably not the time that you want to mentally associate your service with your special offer. Now when I pull these cards out of my wallet and hand to them someone, I've got a different view on your service and a less-than-optimal story to tell about you than you'd probably like.

As it was, based on the timing, my future conversation with a new propsective customer of theirs would go something like this:

Me: I just got back from an eye doctor's appointment
Friend: How did that go?

Me: My eyes are fine, but I had to sit in the chair again and have that exam when they shoot a blast of air into each of my eyes.

Friend: Really? That's never happened to me before.

Me: Happens every time I go. It's the only part of the appointment that I can't stand.

Friend: Ouch.

Me: They gave me this free new customer coupon for you if you wanted...it gets you $25 off your next service. Interested?

Friend: In paying for someone to blast air in my eyes? Thanks but no thanks.

Instead, it could have gone something like this:

Me: I just got back from an eye doctor's appointment.

Friend: How did that go?

Me: Thankfully my eyes are fine. But what's better is that the receptionist actually called my insurnace provider and got some potential billing issues fixed before I ended up getting bogus bills from them weeks from now.

Friend: Really? That kind of service is almost worth the price of admission

Me: Yeah, and she found a rebate was available plus gave me 10% off to match 1800Contacts.com's price.

Friend: Wow. I've never had that kind of experience at an eye doctors before.

Me: They gave me this free coupon for you if you wanted...it gets you $25 off your next service. Interested?

Friend: Sure, why not. I've been putting off an appointment and was never happy with my doctor...maybe I'll give these guys a try instead.

Lesson for Businesses:

It's all about the art of timing.

No matter what service you're providing, recommendations from happy customers are like gold. Make sure that you reward your loyal customers and actively encourage them to spread the word about your products or services, and time that offer for when they're happiest:

-They've left a great comment about you on a personal blog.

-They've posted a review of your company on PriceGrabber.

-They've stayed a minute longer at your table to fill out a comment card after you've capped off a 5-star meal with a decadent dessert.

Whatever the case, the time you deliver your offer is sometimes more critical than the offer itself. So consider carefully when you're going to ask for that recommendation.

And please don't ever ask someone for a recommendation after you've physically assaulted them.