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Sometimes it all comes down to a well cooked sausage

Bangers and mash

Sorry, the headline is a blatant attempt to pique your interest and get you to read on. This is actually a blog about the power of word of mouth and the sausage is an aside.

I live in a fairly large village. We don’t have many shops but we do have a lot of takeaways. What we don’t have is somewhere for people to go for lunch. Or somewhere they can go and sit and have a coffee. When an enterprising local garden centre saw this gap in the market and opened up part of its space to become a tea room, it became an almost overnight success (that in itself is worthy of another blog). It gave local people somewhere to meet up and grab a bite to eat. Mums congregate for coffee after the school run. Friends catch up over a spot of lunch. You get the picture. The food is home-made, well cooked, fresh and locally sourced where possible. It’s appropriately priced and the food is served in a timely fashion by friendly and attentive staff. Clearly, they are getting something right as space has already been increased twice to accommodate more tables.

I’ve never seen any advertising for the tea rooms. There’s no massive sign outside the building and the garden centre is in a fairly remote location, yet I knew of its existence long before I finally had the chance to visit. How? The village grapevine. Word of mouth. That holy grail of marketing where your customers become your sales force. The garden centre was presumably looking for a way to increase revenue during the off-season and identified a need in the local community for a place where people could meet up. In a small place, word spreads quickly and customer loyalty can be strong. Provide a good service and you will keep them coming back for years. And more importantly, they will bring their friends next time. If you like a happy ending stop reading now because here come the sausages…

A few months back another garden centre opened a tea room. Seeing the success of its rival, it looked to use the same formula. Rather than look at what it could offer as a point of difference, or what gap in the market it could fill, it became a carbon copy.

My sister and her friend visited it the other day to try out their breakfast. She was not impressed. The service was slow, the staff inattentive, the tea had bits in it and the sausage was undercooked, and was apparently inedible. It was also more expensive than the rival breakfast. Having spent some time listing all that was wrong with the food, I asked if she had informed the waitress. She said she hadn’t bothered. What she chose to do instead was go and moan in the school playground. A captive audience of say 25 mums standing around waiting for their children who now think this tea room sells undercooked breakfasts at over-inflated prices. OK, 25 people out of the whole community; so what? Well firstly, these school mums form part of the key target market, so their opinion counts. And secondly, I saw first hand how that one particular playground moan could spread. My friend also does the school run, heard the review and told me not to bother trying out the new place. Then my mum mentioned it to me. That’s three times I was hit by a negative message and the ripple effect does not stop there. My parents belong to a local walking group of about 30 people and my mum raised the topic with them. That’s 47 people already…

Infographic showing word of mouth

I would like to hope people would take the review with a healthy pinch of scepticism and go along and make up their own minds but I haven’t rushed there yet. When you are second to market or a ‘me too’ business you are already starting from a difficult position. You need to lure in an already loyal customer. Initially, people may visit out of curiosity and to see if the grass is actually any greener, but if what you are offering is no better/different, you won't convert them. This is why word of mouth is so crucial to a small business. It is also why it can quickly become so damaging. If the playground critique had been carried out on Facebook or Twitter as so often happens, it’s easy to see how things can escalate.

So what can small businesses do to control their reputation? In this instance, as my sister didn’t bother to give any feedback, the tea rooms were not given an opportunity to do any damage limitation. If she had, and then had been given an apology, a free cuppa next visit or a bit of money off the bill, I might not have been writing this blog. Ensuring you have a mechanism for receiving customer feedback is important. Also, ensure you have a plan for acting on that feedback if it is less than favourable.

What any business needs to offer is a great customer experience, every time. Ideally, one they are not getting elsewhere. It might not be better sausages, it might be friendlier service or a free biscuit with your coffee. It might be some crayons on the table to keep the kids distracted whilst the mums chat. Find something that gets people talking about you in the playground for all the right reasons.

It’s a sad fact that however good your business, you are never going to be able to please everyone, and the ones you don’t please will always be the loudest!

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