Use Word of Mouth to Build Business By Staffing Your Store to Spread the Word

Amy’s Ice Creams in Austin, Texas, is beloved for two things: the ice cream and the floor show. They are the ice cream equivalent of Seattle’s “flying fish.” Ice cream scoops are thrown from one worker to another and caught in cups balanced on their chins . . . while standing on one foot . . . hopping. You’ll see ice cream slingers sliding across the counters on their knees and bellies. It’s a carnival ride in there.

Staffing Your Store to Spread the Word

Finding people who are fearless and creative enough to come up with stunts like flinging ice cream balls across a room just can’t happen in the normal interview process. How exactly do you ask, “Are you a little bit nuts?” You can’t. So, at Amy’s, applicants receive a white paper bag. It must be brought back within a week turned into a creation that tells Amy’s about who they are. From this white paper bag, Amy’s finds the personalities to fill their shops.

Without the Right People, This Is Just Great Ice Cream

By using a plain white paper bag as its job application, Amy’s gets to know the creative soul lurking within the teenaged candidate standing before them. This idea began with an applicant who was given the bag instead of the boilerplate job application because Amy’s had run out of the forms. The applicant floated the bag back into the store with helium balloons; inside the bag were items about her life. She got the job. Now for all applicants, this is how Amy’s fills their shops with people who make getting ice cream like going to the circus.

Revel in “Being Real”

The Amy’s Ice Creams Web site says, “Amy’s looks at ‘going out for ice cream’ as a total sensory experience that can revitalize a less-than-stellar day.” Part of the joy of going to their ice cream shops is wondering what kind of floor show you’ll be greeted with. Getting the right people to work at Amy’s has spurred their growth from a single location in 1984 to over 14 stores today. In 1984, Amy’s sold 125,000 servings of ice cream. Now they sell well over 1 million a year, with gross annual sales exceeding $5 million.

Like many beloved companies, Amy’s Ice Creams doesn’t advertise. Word of mouth builds the business, and Amy’s redirects marketing money to community development, which fuels more word of mouth. Amy’s represents the power of the small business owner and how service and exceptional experiences can build a small business. Amy’s Ice Creams prospers because it revels in being real. Its employees revel in being their kooky, nutty selves–and people love it. This translates to Amy’s website, where the home page welcomes you with “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first!” Sound advice.

Go Try This

Get “real” in how you hire and bring people into your company

  • First, define the core values of the people you want to fill your company.
  • Next, determine the personality of your company. Are you serious and deliberate? Are you whimsical?  (Have you thought about it?)

Next, examine your current hiring process:

  • Are you deliberate about selecting people who will deliver your company’s dis­tinct personality to customers?
  • How would your customers say you are doing?
  • Do customers rave about how unique you are?
  • Are you selecting “memory makers” or just filling slots?

Decide to be real:

  • What’s your version of a white paper bag you can use to select people who will become your company to your customers?

Jeanne Bliss Jeanne Bliss is the founder of CustomerBLISS; a consulting and coaching company helping corporations connect their efforts to yield improved customer growth. Her best-selling books are; Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action and I Love You More than My Dog: Five Decisions for Extreme Customer Loyalty in Good Times and Bad.

10 Reactions
  1. And don’t forget that you won’t be 100% on hiring. Include a hiring mechanism that allows you (and the employee) a way out if the fit isn’t right. I’m sure you’re read about Zappos and how after about a week of training they offer an employee $1000 to quit. This way, an employee that doesn’t quite fit or hasn’t “bought in” can leave amicably while you avoid a hiring mistake as soon as possible. Another option might be a 30 or 90-day evaluation period.

  2. Robert, so glad you brought up this point. Absolutely Zappos is a great example (and a case study in this book as well). They actually offer the $1000 at several points throughout training — with exactly the intent you mention — to let folks leave with their dignity and to enable them that, well in their case, “the shoe fits!”

    Thanks so much for adding this very key part of this process.

  3. Imagine what the big Retailers and Telcos could learn from this simple truth from Amy’s Ice Cream. Think of all the marketing dollars they could save if they hired the right customer-facing staff. Often times though, it’s easier to fill a vacancy with a warm body, than make the effort to properly screen people that share your company’s vision and values, and are sincerely passionate about working with customers.

  4. Mark,
    You’re point is exactly why Amy’s example is highlighted! I do believe many of the big companies start out with these great ideas, guided by personal passion and core values– and over time, they get watered down and lost. To me, keeping these as part of the DNA of a business is one of the key actions of leaders as the company grows.

    Thank YOU for this insight!

  5. Word of mouth is an extremely powerful form of marketing. People are more likely to act on recommendations provided by people they trust. Giving people something to talk about, like Amy’s Ice Creams, makes others want to share your story for you!

  6. Hi Jeanne,
    This rocks. Hiring the right people is so critical and I appreciate Zappos (thanks Robert) method of offering various outs during the process.

    I just finished part of a long term project I’ve been working on called Walking Main Street where I’ve talked to local merchants, wandered through physical stores, and done my own secret shopper type of thing (not to be critical but to get a pulse) and I was amazed at how many tired and uninspired employees there were. Some of them might have been the wrong fit and some of it, for sure, was that the business owner neglected to train and encourage that employee in the right way. It goes both ways, right? I will incorporate your post and ideas into my 21 Takeaways post. Thanks!

    I also love Amy’s decision to invest marketing dollars in the community instead. Brilliant.

  7. Hey TJ,
    I love your experiment! My dad ran a Buster Brown Shoe Store while I was growing up — and I can tell you that everything I needed to know about business I learned from watching how he treated his customers! In fact the most brilliant thing we tried to do at Lands’ End was to act like “merchants,” — meaning acting with heart and personalizing to the customer. And as you say, that begins with making sure you’ve got the right folks connecting on a personal level with customers!

    Thanks so much for incorporating this post into yours!


  8. ACanty,
    What’s interesting is that we are finding (and researching is proving this out) that customers turn to each other now more than to a company’s advertising and positioning to make a purchase decision. That means more than ever, that a company has to “live” up to its promise– by how the folks inside it treat their customers. The most compelling stat I’ve seen out there is by Talk Track, which says that 22% of customers buy based on a company’s marketing message, and 78% buy because of something else — mostly driven by word of mouth!


  9. Creative thinking can lead to wonders. Thank you for sharing this great article!

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