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Words matter

The stories your customers and employees share with others about your business can build your brand -- or destroy it. Here are five things you can do right now to promote positive speak.

Recently, a friend of mine and I stopped at the Grid Iron Grill and Sports Lounge during a business-related trek across Iowa. One of her relatives had told her this establishment served the "best tenderloin in Iowa" and another said their cheeseburgers were equally as delicious. My friend opted for the tenderloin with sweet potato fries (served with marshmallow sauce!) and I opted for the cheeseburger with traditional french fries. Both dishes were delicious and, while my friend (an Iowa native) said she wasn't sure it was the best tenderloin she'd ever eaten, she raved about the sweet potato fries. I was equally as smitten with the cheeseburger.

Is anybody else suddenly very hungry?

Anyway, before we left we added our Arizona cities of residence to the old, faded map which was taped to the wall. We were supposed to pin our locations, but this hometown eatery had run out of push pins long ago. Instead, we imitated the actions of a few who had written their locations in the margins. Others had used sticky notes to write savory messages about the Grid Iron's cuisine.

It seems customers at the Grid Iron Sports Bar and Grill will go to any length -- pin, sticky note, or ink pen -- to add their positive experience to the map.

The resulting visual isn't pretty, but it is a testament to the good word of mouth this restaurant enjoys, one which, in this case at least, is fanned by satisfied customers from all across the United States.

My friend posted our positive experience on social media. And I am telling all of you -- plus providing a link to the restaurant's website.

But what happens when customers don't have a positive experience? United Airlines is a perfect example of how a negative customer experience can directly impact a company's reputation and pocketbook.

In 2017, footage of a United Airlines passenger being beaten and forcibly dragged from an aircraft went viral. During the three days it took United CEO Oscar Munoz to issue an apology for the "truly horrific" incident, their stock plummeted $1.4 billion. That cost doesn't include the confidential settlement the airlines negotiated with the passenger or any lost revenue from passengers who intentionally avoided booking travel with United Airlines as a result of this event.

Marketing experts say when individuals are happy with their experience, they tell four people, while those who are unhappy tell at least ten. And if something goes viral, well, just multiply these two ratios exponentially.

So, while most of you can't claim to have the best tenderloin in the state, you can be intentional about generating good word of mouth for your business. Here are five things you can do right now:

1. Set expectations and make sure everyone is on the same page. Do your employees know what you expect -- for example, how to interact with customers on the phone and in person, how to handle complaints when they arise, and what constitutes exceptional service? When everyone acts accordingly, the customer knows they can expect the same quality service no matter whom they encounter within your organization.

2. Treat everyone with dignity and respect. Your brand identity, otherwise known as your reputation, begins with top leadership. If you want your employees to say good things about their work environment when they aren't on the job, then treat them like your best customer. When employees feel valued and are happy at work, they are more likely to share those sentiments with others.

3. Resolve negative complaints immediately. Make sure your employees know how to handle customer complaints onsite and designate someone who will respond immediately to any negative comments you receive online. We all know you can't make everyone happy but you can often mitigate damages by the way you handle the situation.

4. Communicate frequently and honestly. Customers like to know what they can expect when they do business with you, so keep refund/return, loyalty programs, and substitution policies as simple and consistent as possible. If you must change popular policies due to growth or other business-related issues, provide a reasonable redemption time frame or grandfather clause to accommodate loyal customers.

5. Express appreciation and gratitude often and authentically. Expressing happiness and good will are contagious -- and free! It is also a great way to build long-lasting relationships with individuals who will enjoy telling others why they love doing business with you.

So what's the takeaway here? The best marketing and communication plan is worthless if your brand isn't well respected. Resolve to hold customers and employees in high regard, deliver what you promise on an exceptional level and be grateful for what you receive in return. When you do, your good reputation will garner respect and loyalty -- two priceless commodities you can't purchase with any amount of marketing dollars.

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