For my first seven years in business, I didn’t spend a dime on advertising. Instead, I focused on building personal relationships with our customers. Over time, as our customers became our friends, they also became ambassadors for Saddleback Leather, creating a large international online community around our shared passion for high-quality leather products—and a good laugh.

In fact, before we bought our first Google ad, we saw exponential annual sales growth for several years thanks to our customer engagement efforts. And it all started with a poem.


A personal touch

When I launched the company in 2003, my sister Debbie was doing all of the customer service. Every time she spoke to a customer, she would uncover a personal detail about them, write a poem around that information and stick it inside the shipping box. People loved that. One customer stood up in the middle of his office and read his poem out loud to his coworkers. So, of course, when those friends and colleagues were shopping for a briefcase or carryall, they would immediately think of us.

I’m no poet, so I write personal notes and stick them inside boxes before they get shipped. I usually write something like, “Hey Jim, I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate that you chose us over all of the other companies out there. If you’re ever in Fort Worth, come by the showroom, and I’ll take you out for coffee or a beer.” I’ve had several people take me up on that offer.

Now everybody in the company writes notes—even the chief financial officer writes a few every month. We keep a box of leather scraps and Sharpie markers in the shipping area, and we handwrite notes on the backside of the leather scraps to the person buying the bag. When they get it, it’s not long before they’re posting a picture of the note on social media and walking it around the office talking about how cool our company is.


Making ’em laugh

We don’t have a formal marketing strategy, but we love making cool and odd videos about things we value. For example, I designed my own leather coffin a couple of years ago and created a marketing video about my funeral. I’m only 47, but I want the coolest funeral ever. Beyond being funny, the video shows our bags and gets people thinking about the long life span of high-quality leather. That video went viral, even getting a mention on national TV as one of the hottest trending videos of the week.

Another video I made was about how to knock off our bags, complete with a full Mariachi band in my office. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way to explain the details that go into making a high-quality product, and why it’s worth the extra money. That one also went viral, and I ended up talking about it on a national radio program.

When I meet people in airports or they come into our showroom, I ask them how they heard about us and they often tell me that a friend of theirs showed them the “Leather Coffin” or the “How to Knock Off Our Bag” video.


Getting them involved

We also work hard to engage our customers by encouraging their feedback—which, in turn, tends to make them more loyal and singing our praises. For example, any time a new product is launched, we ask buyers for their opinions. The nice thing about interacting with our customers is that they will share with us what they think about a product and how they think we can improve it. They tell us they need room for a laptop or that the strap isn’t right. We take the feedback and often make the changes, and they end up feeling like it’s their company, too.

But we also want feedback on what isn’t working. Last year I went through our customer relationship management (CRM) system, and I hand-wrote letters to our top 100 customers who hadn’t bought anything in the last three years. I got a pad of plain paper and white envelopes—no letterhead—and just asked them how they were doing. Nobody is perfect, and we can mess up on customer service, but if they had a bad experience with our company, I want to hear about it so that I can try to rebuild that relationship.


Showing the love

The only reason any of our efforts work is because we genuinely care about people, and our customers can feel that. One of our customer service reps was on the phone with a young woman in New York City who was trying to pick up a bag that her boss had ordered. It was dark and raining and she was lost and obviously upset. He gave her his personal cell phone number and asked her to text him when she got to where she was going.

We’ll run errands for customers or hop in a car and personally deliver a last-minute gift because the order came in too late for regular shipping. We hire people who love people, so I don’t have to train them to do that. They naturally want to do that. I wouldn’t write notes on scraps of leather if I didn’t really enjoy people.

The trick to word-of-mouth marketing is loving people. People go where the love is—and then they tell their friends.



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