Fact: A stranger’s review has more impact on your customer’s purchase decision than any of your marketing or advertising efforts. According to a survey by BrightLocal, 88% of customers rely on reviews to determine the quality of a local business, and data from the Pew Research Center suggests that half of consumers under age 50 check online reviews prior to clicking the “buy now” button. If you want to grow and sustain a healthy and profitable small business, you can’t ignore the power of social proof.

What’s social proof? It’s a psychological phenomenon where people are influenced by the actions of others under the guise that those actions are the correct ones. We follow the herd unless the herd veers off the map.

Think about it. Before you invest your hard-earned dollars on a product or service, you’ll likely do some online sleuthing. From Amazon reviews to popular forums, everyone has an opinion and studies show that online opinions — as they relate to products and services — matter.

Consumers are savvy, and they’re more likely to trust someone who has shelled out money for a product than a brand that has a sales agenda, and the data backs this up. A landmark McKinsey study revealed that testimonials and online word-of-mouth drive 20 to 50% of consumer purchasing decisions.

Let’s take it step further. A study by Econsultancy demonstrated that product reviews are trusted nearly 12 times more than product descriptions or sales copy.

Bottom line: Your customers’ opinions can make or break your business.

Now that you realize the tremendous impact and power of word-of-mouth marketing, here are three steps to guarantee you’ll win over your customer’s affections in order to make the big ask.

Step 1: Build surprise and delight into your customer’s experience

From perks and bonus savings to free shipping and white glove service, the little touches make a difference — especially if they’re not expected. Consumers have grown accustomed to the assembly-line nature of commerce, and you can stand out by adding personalized touches. For example, Boston-based luxury shoe manufacturer, M.Gemi, encloses personalized thank you cards with every shoe purchase. Appointed, an American-made manufacturer of organizational and productivity tools, makes a point to package all their shipments as gifts, complete with luxury wrapping and notecards on bond paper.

Step 2: Go the extra mile for your customers

Make a habit of delivering the WOW factor. This is the difference between correcting a shipping mistake versus hand-delivering your product with a special experience. The small touches and the big service leaps will cultivate a foundation of brand and product love. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Graham famously said, “Do things that don’t scale.” Communicate one-on-one with your customers. Get their feedback. Create extraordinary and memorable experiences that set your business apart from the pack.

Step 3: Always stay calm and always have solutions

Be the kind of business that’s always in solutions mode. Instead of panicking when things go off course, you’re calm, collected, and focused on turning blind spots into opportunities. Operate a first-rate customer service experience, even when your customer is facing shipping delays or product malfunctions.

Now that you’ve created a foundation of excellence in your business, here’s how to ask for the testimonial:

  • Ask when you’re on fire. To capture fresh insights and the excitement of a job well done, ask for an endorsement right at the close of the sale/project, or shortly thereafter when your customer is jubilant and satisfied. Simply send them an email asking for their feedback and permission to use their words in any future marketing efforts.
  • Conduct “how did we do” customer satisfaction surveys. If you’ve ever had a call with a customer service representative or made an online purchase, you may have received an online survey. Here are some excellent examples from small businesses and leading brands. You can build these emails into your e-commerce platform to be sent automatically after a period of time when your customer makes a purchase. You can invite overall feedback and also elicit ratings and reviews on your website.
  • Offer “beta” pricing. If you run a service-based organization, then you have the ability to introduce favorable pricing to customers in exchange for their feedback. Your customer gets the benefit of your expertise at a discount and you get to road test your services, as well as to receive “focus group” level feedback. You can invite your customers to give feedback via email or video and that input can be used to promote future offerings.
  • Capture social love. When your customers love your business, they have no problem shouting it from the rafters. Set Google alerts and scan your social media feeds daily to monitor for conversations and praise. Feel free to take screenshots of the feedback for promotional use. First, be sure to ask for their permission, especially if you’re using their image or words in advertising. Also, stay current on laws and regulations in your state and industry regarding claims customers can make, and how you can use testimonials and endorsements in advertising. First, start at the federal level and then research any local and state laws.

The best testimonials include the customer’s first name, photo, location, and feedback about your product or service. You can up the ante by asking for transformational feedback, that is, how someone’s life has been changed as a result of using your product or service. For example, fitness trainers and coaches often show off before and after photos of their clients.

If you’re not harnessing the power of social proof to market your small business, you’re leaving money on the table. Social proof is the ultimate validation of your product or service. It answers your customers’ burning questions: Does your product do what it says it does? Is your service worth the money? Is your business one they could trust?

While you may be your biggest brand evangelist, your customers’ seal of approval is persuasive and powerful. It’s the driving force that converts a lead to a sale.