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What’s a better way to get new customers: Delight the ones who already know you, or throw more money at ad campaigns? Where do your customers come from? Do your marketing activities target those customers precisely? If you can’t answer these two questions with certainty, you’re in trouble. Knowing with precision – and predictability – where your customers come from is the only way to spend scarce marketing dollars and get results.

Consider companies who depend upon referrals, like real estate agents: Nearly 4 in 10 sellers choose an agent because of a recommendation from a trusted friend or family member. The path to prosperity REALTORS runs through people who have tried and liked your services in the past, if you can get them to recommend your services to people they know.

Yet most marketing dollars are wasted chasing people who have no idea who we are or if we’re any good. And who disbelieve any of our ego-stroking marketing statements by default.

How do referrals take place? Stories. Word of mouth. People telling other people they should try your service. Referrals happen within a sphere of influence of people who  know what you do, and that it warrants talking positively about it. Most referring is informal – over a coffee or a beer, or a tweet. But customers won’t talk about you if they were merely “satisfied” with their experience. Rather, referrals only come from one place:

Delighted customers.

Creating delighted customers is remarkably inexpensive. Far less expensive than pay-per-click campaigns on search engines. Far, far less expensive than direct mail campaigns to neighborhoods. Far, far, far, far, far less expensive than running newspaper ads touting your terrificness.

Best of all, delighted customers are  more effective than almost any other marketing effort.

How do you delight customers? Isn’t doing a good job enough? No, it’s not. That’s what customers expect when they pay you. They are only satisfied to get what they expect.

To delight them, you must do something they didn’t expect.

An example: On a trip to Chicago, I checked into the Palomar hotel, a very nice hotel with very nice doormen, very nice desk staff and a very nice room. I expected all of that, because I also paid a very nice price. All things considered, I was satisfied to get my money’s worth. But I stay at many hotels: I don’t tell my friends about my satisfied-only experiences.

I arrived thirsty from the airport, so I drank a ginger-ale from the room’s mini-bar. I left the empty bottle on the desk the next day before leaving. When I got back in the afternoon, I expected the room to be cleaned. I expected the soda bottle to be removed.

What I didn’t expect however, was what happened, that was delightful.

While checking email that afternoon, there came a knock at the door. A staff person stood there with a bottle of ginger ale. He explained that they had noticed that I drank a bottle of ginger ale from the mini-bar yesterday. So he was bringing me a complimentary bottle to enjoy today. Then he left.

Standing there with a bottle of ginger ale in my hands, I was stunned. Most hotels make you pay for a bottle of room-temperature water. A nice cold bottle of soda – free – even after they knew I’d be willing to pay for it from the mini-bar? Just delightful!

What did it cost them? Maybe two dollars, probably less. But what did it earn them? My testimonials to many – at dinner that night, today on this blog, in the future to others who travel as much as I do. Merely paying attention to their customer’s habits – actually, to their customer’s trash – presented them with an opportunity to inexpensively but effectively delight their customer. $2 became priceless in terms of marketing. And it was spent with exacting precision, on the precise customer who could not only become a repeat customer, but a powerful source of word-of-mouth marketing.

So what’s your $2 customer delight plan? How can you pay attention to your customer’s habits, needs, desires – the little things are all it takes – to create delight? It’s time to stop throwing money around – to stop guessing which 140 characters in ads might cause someone who doesn’t know you to suddenly like you.

Instead, think about the people who are already satisfied with you, and spend $2 worth of effort to delight them. Like me, you might be surprised at what happens next!