Using_Recommendations_body.jpgBy Erin O’Donnell.

A satisfied customer is one of the best marketing tools around. Small business owners can harness the power of positive word-of-mouth by asking their biggest fans directly for a recommendation.

The best testimonials are created with good timing and specific questions about your customer’s experience, say small business experts. The most effective results come from putting them where they can influence potential new customers and clients.

“It helps every kind of business to have a real person in front of you saying, ‘These guys are the real deal,’” says Paul Schwada, owner of Locomotive Solutions, a business consultancy based in Chicago.

Testimonials work for the same reasons that social media helps brand awareness and loyalty: people trust recommendations from other customers more than the company’s own marketing. That’s what Forrester Research found last year in a consumer survey about branded content. In that poll, 70 percent of respondents—U.S. adults who go online—said they trust brand or product recommendations from friends and family. Just under half (46 percent) trust online reviews written by other consumers. Only one in 10 said they trust online advertising.

Don’t be afraid to ask

The good news is that recommendations are not difficult to get. Every business has its cheerleaders—top customers, clients, and admirers who would be happy to recommend its services or products.

“If you’ve built a rapport with clients, you know which ones are approachable,” says Maciej Fita, director of search engine optimization for Brandignity, an inbound marketing firm in Naples, Florida.

Fita says he likes to ask once and let a client consider the request. If he doesn’t get a response, he doesn’t push. But Schwada recommends soliciting testimonials when customers are at the peak of satisfaction.

“The moment they recognize the satisfaction and the value of your company is the best possible moment to ask,” he says. “It could be a bouquet that they loved, or a service that worked right.”

And businesses should have a mechanism in place to collect that feedback right away, Schwada adds. If you’re on the phone with a client when you ask for a testimonial, send an email at that moment for them to respond to. Or direct them to an online survey.

In person, it can be even easier to get an immediate response, which you can then reshape into a testimonial. Schwada recommends having a smartphone recorder ready when asking a customer to explain what they appreciated about their experience with your company. It’s better, he says, than bothering them to write it down.

Fita says video testimonials are growing in popularity, too. Try asking clients or customers you see regularly in person if they would sit for a short video interview.

Using_Recommendations_PQ.jpgListen for positive comments that could be cultivated into a testimonial, Schwada says, and be sure to coach your employees to do the same. When a customer says something positive, ask if he or she would be willing to have their comments crafted into a testimonial. Track positive comments on Facebook and Twitter and consider reaching out to those consumers as well.

You can also offer a premium, such as a free consultation, gift, or coupon, in exchange for a testimonial. Fita says even though it’s more like a transaction, it’s unlikely that a displeased customer would give false positive feedback.

The more detail, the better

Once you’ve figured out how to ask, the next step is figuring out what to ask. What aspects of your business do you want the testimonial to promote?

Business coach Katya Barry, who specializes in working with female entrepreneurs, advises business owners to craft a few questions that will get clients thinking in specifics. “People are often open to doing them but don’t always know what to say apart from ‘You’re great, and I’ll recommend you.’”

To elicit a richer recommendation, consider asking:

  • What was it like before you used my service or product?
  • Why did you choose to work/shop with me?
  • For services: what progress have you made during our time together?
  • What specific feature did you like the best?
  • What were your results from using our product/service?
  • What was it like working with me? Feel free to describe my personal and professional qualities.
  • How would you recommend my services or products to others?

These interviews can also give you insight about how well you’re achieving your own business goals, Barry says.

It’s okay to reshape what your customer says so that it reads well. Just be sure to keep it in his or her voice, or it won’t sound genuine.

George Aspland, president of eVision, a web marketing and design firm in Connecticut, says a well-placed testimonial can have a direct effect on sales. “They can make a difference in the conversion rate on a website, particularly among people who may not know anything about you other than what’s on the site,” he says.

Aspland recommends placing testimonials on website pages where customers are deciding whether to buy a product or use your services. He also recommends asking top clients to serve as references for your company.

“A big part of our sales process is to have a prospective customer talk to one of our happy customers,” Aspland says.

Don’t overlook online reviews

Aspland says online reviews can drive people to your website in two ways. Good reviews on sites such as Yelp can produce leads, and getting customers to review you on Google+ can improve your search engine rankings.

Fita says Google+ reviews are especially good for driving traffic to brick and mortar businesses through local search results. Business pages with reviews are ranked higher in search results, he says. And if your business has received negative feedback online, the best response is getting people to post positive comments that show up ahead of the negative ones.

A caveat: if you solicit online reviews, ask for only a few at a time, Aspland says. The review sites may flag a batch of reviews that come in all at the same time as inauthentic.

Aspland recommends business owners ask for either a testimonial or an online review, but not both. Determine which suits your strategy better, and then start identifying whom to ask. It’s a simple and effective way to turn satisfied customers into ambassadors for your brand.