This article is part of our “Business Startup Guide” – a curated list of our articles that will get you up and running in no time!

What’s the best way to market your business that costs nothing? Find your brand ambassadors. Brand ambassadors are the people who are so in love with your product or service, they’ll spread the word about your business for free.

So how do you find these brand ambassadors? Below are tried and true tips to building a brand ambassador program that will keep your business growing and growing.

Tip #1: Really listen to your customer

You may have had the experience of going into a restaurant, ordering an expensive entrée that isn’t cooked the way you asked for, and when the waiter or waitress asks “How’s the food?” and you say “Well, actually, it’s not great,” the waiter or waitress gives you a blank stare, shrugs their shoulders and walks away.

Maddening, isn’t it? Yet the restaurant that trains its wait staff to ask the question with sincerity and be ready to remedy what’s not right is the restaurant you come back to over and over. It’s the restaurant you tell your friends and family about. In other words, it’s the restaurant you become a brand ambassador for.

Running a small business is no different. Your product or service will never be perfect. It’s just not humanly possible. But if you go out of your way to understand what your customer did and didn’t like, and you take active steps to fix what went wrong, you’ll have a customer—and a brand ambassador—for life.

Tip #2: Make your employee or sub-contractor a hero

Southwest Airlines knew early on that their employees were key to succeeding in a highly competitive marketplace, and so they made their employees the real heroes. Southwest has built a powerful culture that says to each employee, every day, that their thoughts and opinions matter, that their personal life matters, and that their happiness matters.

For example, in it’s 44 years of business, Southwest Airlines has never furloughed its employees. At its core, Southwest knows that each employee can make the difference between a good customer experience and a bad one. When asked how he created a culture of such committed employees, Herb Kelleher, the famed founder of the airline said, “I just stayed out of my employees’ way.”

No matter how large or small your business, empowering your employees or even your sub-contractors to be a hero in your company will bring endless rewards. They’ll appreciate your commitment—far beyond any paycheck—and will naturally sound the horn about your products and services both at work and away from work.

Tip #3: Offer gifts that delight

The chocolate on the pillow is the oldest trick in the book, but it still works. That little piece of chocolate says to the customer “I like you and I value you.”

Umpqua Bank made a splash in the staid banking industry by adopting customer service practices that normally remained in the hotel sphere. When you make a deposit or cash a check at any branch, you get a chocolate. Umpqua took it even further and created living-room-style décor, complete with comfy chairs and a fresh pot of coffee that all members of the community are invited to enjoy. By focusing on these little surprises, Umpqua gained huge traction in a highly commoditized marketplace.

Finding the gifts that delight does create an extra step in your workflow, but even the simplest thing, like saying an extra “thank you” will generate goodwill—and brand ambassadors.

Tip #4: Do the unexpected

Innovation comes in many forms. Les Schwab built the most successful tire company on the West Coast by noticing something that other tire store owners hadn’t: Les realized his core target audience was women, and he knew women placed a premium on clean bathrooms. He innovated the tire store experience by making sure each one of his stores had a fresh and scrubbed bathroom. This simple, but powerful innovation was key to the legion of brand ambassadors who gladly shared the news of their unexpectedly pleasant tire store experience.

Also playing on this idea, Salt & Straw, a popular ice cream retail chain in Portland, Oregon, is serving up totally unexpected flavors. Belly up to the counter, and you’ll see choices like “pear and blue cheese,” “Arbequina olive oil,” and “freckled woodblock chocolate.” Their bold re-invention of ice cream is rewarded by long lines of fans eager to try the crazy flavors and then tell their friends about it.

Tip #5: Create an experience

IKEA brought Swedish design to the U.S. market and created an instant cult following. By carefully studying the entire store experience—from the friendly signs to the clever furniture vignettes to the savory-smelling meatballs—IKEA hooked a broad audience of potential brand ambassadors who revel in the DIY credo.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Walk into your office as though it were for the first time; is there a way to arrange the furniture that’s more inviting? Try out your product as though you never had. Is there a new way to package it, maybe with ribbon or a flourish, that says “I think you’re special”? Think about every touch point you have with your customers, employees, sub-contractors, and vendors, and see if there’s a way to make that touch point just a bit more memorable.

If you take the time to really listen to your customer, to make your employee or sub-contractor a hero, to offer gifts that delight, to do the unexpected, and to create a unique experience, you’ll find brand ambassadors cropping up left and right. And that’s where the real fun begins.

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