Secrets to Earning Passionate Fans (Not Just Customers) and the Top 3 Things Stopping Your Company from Being the Next Zappos

This is a post that the wonderful Ann Hadley posted on the AMEX Open Forum Site.  Ann asked me questions about my new book, “I Love You More than My Dog:Five Decisions that Drive Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad.”

I thought I’d post the content here for you. Enjoy, use, and prosper!

Mar 26, 2010

What’s the difference between Zappos and Endless, or Southwest and USAir? What inspires customers to love you versus simply like you? Why are some companies beloved?

And what about you: Do you have passionate fans, or simply folks who do business with you? Are your customers enthusiastic, or apathetic?

Lots of businesses are respected, but only an elite few have passionate, loyal, vocal fans: The kind of customers who not only come back time and time again, but rave to friends, family, and even strangers. The kind who can drive explosive growth via e-mail, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
In her 2009 book, “I Love You More Than My Dog”: Five Decisions That Drive Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad, author Jeanne Bliss studied dozens of beloved companies to uncover the secret sauce of their passionate fans.

“I wanted to ‘demystify’ what goes on behind the scenes that move a company from being and ‘everyday’ company to a ‘beloved’ company,” Bliss said in a recent conversation.

“In other words: What is different about these companies? Why and how do they get to the actions and outcomes that make them so connected, so much an indelible part of their employee and customers’ lives?” she added.

Bliss reveals the “secret sauce” of growing a beloved company in my recent interview with her.

When I think of “beloved” companies, I think of the obvious candidates: Zappos, Threadless, Southwest, Apple. Are there examples of smaller businesses that inspire the same?

Yes, there are companies — big, middle and small. There are examples of amazing companies out there whose stories are just as compelling and interesting as the usual suspects.

For example, the number one home healthcare provider in Canada is called Nurse Next Door, and they had record growth in 2009.  When they make a mistake, they send their customers a fresh-baked “Humble Pie” from a local outfit called Acme Pie Company. Along with the pie is a sincere apology and actions to fix the problem pronto. In 2008, they spent $1,500 on pies and saved $150,000 in business.

Another company is Zane’s Cycles: A single bike shop in Connecticut that sells $15 million in bikes and equipment. Zane’s lets a new prospective customer take out a bike (even an expensive $6000 bike) without asking for collateral or ID of any sort.  They don’t want to start the relationship by questioning the customer’s integrity. They believe in the power of the relationship… started on the right foot. In fact they know that when done right, a customer lifetime value is $12,500. Why risk that by questioning someone new walking in their door?

In your book, you give the keys to “operationalizing” the approach to gaining customer love. But can you really operationalize something like love? Doesn’t love for anything — a person, a company, a dog — grow out of something that resists a formula?

Well, that’s the secret sauce of this book. You can’t create an operating plan to manufacture love. But you can take deliberate actions and steer the direction in a manner toward customers and employees, so that you earn the right to customers loving how you treat them.

For example?
There’s an ice cream shop in Austin Texas called Amy’s Ice Creams. They scoop up over 5 million servings a year without any advertising. They invest some of that money in charities instead.

Amy’s experience is like a carnival ride: the young kids throw ice cream scoops from one to another, catching it in cups balanced on their chins…things like that. Sort of the Seattle Flying Fish of ice cream.

Amy of Amy’s knows that she has to be deliberate about how and who she selects to put that type of whimsical show on…so at Amy’s the application is a white paper bag.  The (mostly) teenagers who apply are given a white paper bag which must be returned transformed into some type of creative rendition of who the applicant is, what makes them tick. From there Amy’s decides who will be the company to their customers.

So Amy’s is deliberate about selecting people who put on the show which makes customers love them. And you can see some of those white paper bag applications on the site.

In other words, love grows when companies approach their business in a deliberate way: Putting their customers first, and thinking what will truly make a difference to them.

Yes, and that starts with decisions.  Decisions on how they decide to hire. Decisions on the rules and regulations they do or do not put on employees and customers.

For example; think about companies you love interacting with: Usually it’s because the frontline folks are creative, energetic, think on their feet and take ownership of your experience.

That’s true.

A company has to suspend the fear and hire the right type of people to do this. Then throw away the rule book as much as possible and trust their people. And oh, by the way, give their folks enough support, training and development so they can do their best job. The beloved companies put angst into their decisions.

What do you mean by “angst”?

They know that the accumulation of their decisions and actions become their “story” in the marketplace. And that is the story told from one customer to another. Angst meaning that they think really hard about the impact of their decisions.

A company called CustomInk does T-shirts. They thought long and hard (angst!) about how to get customer feedback. They send every customer a follow-up survey after every order.  This feedback, they decided, should be keyed right from their customers fingertips to the home screen of their website. So anything their customer types goes right up there for all the world to see…unedited.

They considered editing out some, but decided that it was most important to show the good with the bad. And that has paid off in immense customer trust. …they considered it all and came up with the decision most in line with the story they wanted told about them.

How about in the B2B world? Do these same rules apply?
Yes. Rackspace is a B2B company that serves and supports companies in making sure that their websites are stable and supporting their mission. Their higher purpose is that they imagine the life of an IT Manager and want to give them “peace” of mind.  So rather than making that IT manager go to five different departments to get help (like suppport, billing, IT, etc.), they bring those folks all together in a single team organized by the client.

By connecting the silos for their customers, they earn the right to grow.  In fact 60% growth year over year.

Tell me the top three things that companies often miss when it comes to earning customer love.

  1. Reliability. If you aren’t consistent in your interactions, your customers can’t want to repeat the experience and won’t be able to tell others about the experience
  2. Paying enough attention to hiring and developing.
  3. Giving everyone in the company clarity of the higher purpose you are serving in customers’ lives.

One more question: How did you come up with the book title? Do you have dogs?

Well, I was giving my publisher all kinds of “serious” titles like “DECIDE” and “Earn the Rave,” and my publisher (who publishes Seth Godin’s books) called me up one day and said, “Jeanne, we got the best title for your book!”  And from the other end of the line I hear, “Your book title is ‘I Love You More than My Dog.'”

It’s a brilliant title because it catches people emotionally and it plays to what this book is all about: That you’ve got to earn that type of rave!!


BIO: Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of, which provides strategic and tactical marketing know-how. Follow her on Twitter @marketingprofs.

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