What is the number one way of aquiring customers for most businesses – whether you’re a cafe, a dentist or a software company?

The big driver is word of mouth. It can make or break the success of many different kinds of organizations. Recently I heard a story that illustrates one way you can tell if you’re on the right track.

A co-worker of mine, Kelley Smith, was competing in the Santa Barbara Triathlon last weekend. She was doing the challenging and highly competitive long course last Saturday (1m swim, 34m bike, 10m run) wearing her Citrix Online cycling jersey. She was almost 1/2 way through the bike portion heading up a steep canyon road when a fellow racer caught up to her and said, “Hey, you work for Citrix Online? I LOVE your products!” He then slowed down to keep pace with her so he could tell her a story about a recent situation where he was not going to be able to make a meeting on time and decided to use GoToMeeting instead. He went on to say he was going to start using GoToMeeting more since it was so convenient. Then presumably he sped back up and continued the race.

This is a great product/customer experience test which I’ll call the Tri Test: Would someone slow down mid-race to tell you about their experience with your business?

In this case, the two main drivers for his enthusiasm were the following:

1. The product was convenient and easy to use – it worked as it was supposed to.
2. The product was a “life-saver” – it solved a real problem for him.

Having analyzed a lot of customer data, I can tell you that these are consistent drivers of word of mouth across different products and industries. This is why these kind of anecdotes are so revealing. When I bring up Citrix in conversations, I listen carefully to the reactions. If they have heard of one of our products and use words like “easy” and tell “life-saver” stories, I know we’re on the right track. Conversely, if they haven’t heard anything or mention some other solution, that is equally revealing.

A formal way of measuring this phenomenon is NPS or net promoter score. This is a survey where you ask your customers how likely they are to recommend your products and you subtract the detractors (very low scores) from the promotors (high scores) to measure how you are doing. Research shows that companies with higher scores tend to do better.

The nice thing about the “Tri Test” is that you could use it hypothetically to think about a potential market. For instance, if you’re thinking about a new product, can you imagine someone slowing down to rave about their experience with it? If not everyone, is there a particular market segment or target that would be more likely to find it “convenient” and “life-saving” enough they would stop mid-race to tell you about it?

Kelley pointed out that triathaletes themselves represent a valuable market. Statisticly there are a high percentage of business professionals that participate in the sport with a mean income of $126,000/year. Many of these athletes train hours upon hours each week and travel long distances for races, thus flexibility within their work environment and the need for tools to support this lifestyle is huge.

Hence, a web conferencing tool like GoToMeeting is particularly good for the Tri Test. If your product was targeted to a different type of person, you could replace the Tri with another sport or activity that person would be passionate about. The goal is the same: to really think about who would be a passionate advocate for your product. Finding those people and making it easy for them to use and really benefit from your service is the key to growth.

Photo by jimmyharris