Want Customer Testimonials? Start Spurfing!

by Dean Rieck

Part 1 > Part 2 > Part 3 > Part 4

I was raised Protestant, but my wife is Catholic. Guess which church we attend.

Actually I enjoy the Catholic mass because it's chock full of involvement techniques. But it's all I can do to keep up. When the congregation stands, I stand. When the congregation sits, I sit. Except for kneeling and genuflecting, I pretty much just do what everyone else is doing even though I have no idea what's going on most of the time. I just try to follow along and fit in.

In part one of this series on testimonials, I told you about a throng of teenagers relieving themselves in the shrubbery during a traffic jam. As I explained, it appeared that most of those teenagers had been drinking. I can only assume that many of them had needed to relieve themselves for some time. But they didn't accept the idea of doing it in public until a few brave adventurers lead the way.

My behavior in the mass and the roadside antics of those teenagers are both clear examples of the psychological principle called "Social Proof." According to this principle, all of us look to others to help us decide how to act and to determine whether our actions are right or wrong. The more people doing it, the more correct it seems.

In the world of selling, we use testimonials, among other techniques, to take advantage of this principle. However, only about one out of 10 clients I've worked with make a concerted effort to collect testimonials and keep them on file. So I think it's time we take a look at a simple way to gather testimonials from your customers.

The method I prefer? Just remember four letters: S.P.R.F. (pronounced "spurf"). It's short for Schedule, Phone, Release, and File.

Using The "Spurf" Testimonial System

Testimonials work best when they are believable, specific, and enthusiastic. How do you achieve this ideal? You use real testimonials from real people.

Now I know that some marketers believe that you should write your own testimonials. But that's a slippery slope. The whole idea of testimonials is that they are objective endorsements of your product or service. So if you write them yourself, you don't have anything like objectivity. What you have is a lie. And if you're willing to lie about testimonials today, what will you be willing to lie about tomorrow?

What about writing testimonials and getting real people to sign off on them? I don't have an ethical problem with that. Often, people don't express themselves well in writing. And penning your own certainly lets you say what you want to say.

But I firmly believe that using the real words of real customers is the best long-term approach. Your customers will say things you could never dream up on your own. Their comments are often quirky and have a ring of truth that few copywriters can match. Real testimonials are a source of creative inspiration and a valuable peek into the opinions and motivations of the most important people in the world: your satisfied customers.

Here are the four steps in the "spurf" system.

  1. SCHEDULE. Make a commitment to bring in testimonials once a month, once a quarter, twice a year, or whatever. The time frame doesn't matter; just make it part of your routine. You may even want to set quotas — 10 new testimonials a month or 30 testimonials for each promotion you do. Again, the specifics are less important than your commitment to the routine. Just make sure your schedule is realistic and productive.

  2. PHONE. Call a portion of your customer list according to your schedule. Start by saying something flattering, such as, "The president of our company has personally asked for your opinion. Would you mind telling me what you think about your widget?"

    Ask a few easy questions that elicit responses that are either positive or neutral in tone: When did you receive your widget? Did your widget arrive in good condition? Have you used it (tried it, tasted it, read it, worn it) yet?

    Then ease into the real questions: What is your opinion of your widget? Why did you buy your widget? What is the one feature you like most? Why would you say your widget is better than similar widgets? If you were to write an advertisement about your widget, what would your headline be? How has your widget saved you time (or money, or trouble, or embarrassment, or whatever)?

    Another way to handle this is to ask customers to complete leading statements along the same lines: I bought my widget because ... The one feature I like most about my widget is ... My widget is better than similar widgets because ... If I were to write an advertisement about my widget, my headline would be ... My widget benefits me by ...

    Whatever you ask, keep it short. Don't ask yes or no questions. Ask for open-ended comments. And write down (or electronically record) every word, even the bad comments. This is a treasure trove of customer input. And in all cases, whenever you get a comment that isn't quite specific enough, ask your customer to elaborate. Get the dates, numbers, names, and other facts that make testimonials sparkle.

  3. RELEASE. When you get a good comment, type it up and overnight a copy to your customer by FedEx or the express delivery medium of your choice. Include a letter from the head of the company that says something like, "Mary told me about your comments. And I was so impressed, I just had to write and say, 'thank you.' In fact, your kind words were so valuable, I'd like to quote you in our advertising. Do you mind?"

    Ask the customer to sign your release (giving you ownership of the testimonial forever) and return it in the postage-free envelope you have enclosed. And as a kicker, mention that you're sending a gift as a small token of your appreciation. This assures you will get more releases returned. Plus, it's good customer relations.

  4. FILE. If you don't do it yourself, pick one person to organize and store your testimonials in a central location. If you have to share testimonials among divisions or departments, send copies, not originals. As for physical storage, a file folder in a filing cabinet works as good as anything. Depending on the size of your company, you may want to set up a separate file for each product or service line.

    Eventually, you may want to enter your best testimonials into a word processing file. This will let you do key word searches if you're looking for something special. And you can quickly cut and paste testimonials when it comes time to write copy.

Two Minor Variations

"Spurfing" may not appeal to you if you don't have customer phone numbers, don't want to make phone calls, or if you need some testimonials quickly. So here are a couple alternatives.

Variation #1: Questionnaires. Mail is a less direct method than phoning, but it lets you approach a large number of customers simultaneously. Follow the same questioning strategy as above: flattering opening, easy questions, real questions, promised gift. When you get a good comment, overnight a copy to the sender and get a release. If a comment isn't clear, follow up and iron out the details.

Variation #2: Bribes. If you want a simple, one-step method, this is it. Just send a questionnaire with release information included, be clear about wanting positive remarks, and offer a gift for any comments you use. To spice it up, you can even run a contest for the best testimonial, headline, or success story. Can this blatant approach damage your image? In most cases, I would say no. For the most part, people accept advertising in all its forms. And many customers will actually consider this a fun way to get involved with your company.

Of course, no matter how aggressive you are in getting testimonials, you should also provide a way for people to share their thoughts with you at other times as well. And you should be prepared to record and file any unsolicited testimonials whenever they come in.

Make sure all positive correspondence is routed to your desk. Encourage phone operators and sales people to relay customer remarks. If you have a catalog, provide a toll-free comment line. On your website, provide an interactive form or e-mail link for feedback. In your billing, fulfillment, and other contacts, enclose a postage-paid comment card.

Once you have a system in place, you'll find that getting testimonials is easier than you thought. You may even come to enjoy it. But the real payoff comes when it's time to create your direct mail and ads.

In part three, we'll look at how to use testimonials once you have them. Then in part four, I'll show you how to go beyond the standard testimonial to put the principle of Social Proof to work in many other ways.

Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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