Leslie Nolen leads The Radial Group, which provides seminars, publications and coaching on starting and managing profitable and personally rewarding health and wellness businesses. E-mail her at lnolen@radialgroup.com or visit www.radialgroup.com to subscribe to free weekly business tips tailored to wellness businesses.

Why waste thousands of dollars on slick marketing and advertising when your most powerful resource is free?

That resource is testimonials. Use these guidelines to learn why testimonials are so powerful and how you can use them to attract new clients and customers.

1. What is a testimonial? A testimonial is a statement describing a positive experience or belief about you, your team, your programs, your products and services, or your approach to doing business.

2. Why are testimonials important? Potential customers want satisfactory answers to three key questions before they’ll buy:

  • Can I trust you and your business?
  • Do you understand what I want to do?
  • Can you help me solve my problem or reach my goal?

Testimonials help answer these questions.

3. What are the most common types of testimonials?

  • Endorsement—recommendations from experts, recognized authorities, local celebrities or others with special standing. An example is:

“Dr. Miller’s insights into women’s weight issues are top-notch.” – Dr. Lucy Smith, Big State School of Medicine

  • Recommendations—enthusiastic comments from prior or current customers, more general than a proof statement or customer experience testimonial. An example is:

“The LoveOfLife program is fabulous!” – Sandra B., Memphis mom of two

  • Proof statements—customer comments specifically describing customers’ outcomes or results. This testimonial demonstrates that your business understands what customers want and can help them accomplish it. An example is:

“I got five great ways to handle stress eating from the LoveOfLife program and maintained my weight over Christmas.” – Ali J., the oldest of four brothers

  • Customer experience testimonials—positive comments specifically describing the customer’s experience with your business. They give prospects insight into how your business helps them reach their goals. An example is:

“The people in the LoveOfLife program were so kind—no one ever made me feel guilty about anything.” – Mariana G., four-time dieter from Dallas

4. How should our business get testimonials? Whenever a prospect, customer or client says something complimentary to your or your employees, immediately thank them and ask if it would be OK for you to share that with other customers. Use the same approach with customer e-mails, suggestion cards, survey comments and similar communications. Write the testimonial down promptly, note who said it and date it. Then forward it to your marketing manager.

5. How can we ask for testimonials? The best time to ask is when clients feel that they’ve reached their objective. For example, perhaps your client has maintained her weight goal for three months.

For a general testimonial:

You ask, “How has the program been working for you?”

“It’s been fabulous,” the client says. “I’m hardly ever hungry because of all the great snack ideas you gave me.”

“Wow, that’s great to hear,” you say. “Would it be all right if we shared that with other customers?”

For a testimonial about a specific aspect of your program or service:

You ask, “How has the stress reduction aspect of the program worked for you?”

“Oh, that part’s been great,” your client says. “I just use the tips you taught me when I feel myself getting tense.”

“Wow, that’s wonderful news,” you say. “Would it be all right if we shared that with other people?”

Then, ask her if it’s okay to use her full name or if she’d rather you just used her first name.

6. What do the best testimonials accomplish?

The most effective testimonials:

§ Remind potential customers about the emotional pain or benefit of tackling their problem or capitalizing on their opportunity.

§ Reflect a real-life experience that strikes a chord with other prospective clients.

§ Share an unexpected benefit or payoff that would appeal to others.

§ Spark curiosity or interest from others in similar situations.

§ Address potential anxieties, fears or concerns that potential customers often have.

7. What format should our testimonials follow? Date each testimonial to subtly reinforce your track record. Use the customer’s real words. Edit only for clarity and space. Never rewrite their comments to sound more “corporate” or more “sales-y.”

Use customer names—either their full name or their first name plus their last initial. With permission, use their employer’s name if that’s appropriate for your business. When possible, include a small photo of the customer. Make it easy for potential customers to see similarities between their situation and your customer’s by captioning each testimonial with the customer’s name and a very brief description of their situation.

Printed and online written testimonials are traditional and very effective. Audio and video recordings are also terrific options that are affordable for even smaller businesses.

8. Where and how can we use testimonials?

Use these 10 places where you can jump-start your testimonial marketing:

§ On the back of business cards

§ In your newsletter and on your Web site

§ During your on-hold message or company voicemail announcement

§ In your brochure

§ In your e-mail signature

§ In proposals to corporate customers

§ On direct-mail materials

§ Within case studies of successful clients and customers

§ On display boards and bulletin boards

§ As a playback on in-store monitors

Virtually every health club can improve its use of testimonials. Follow these tips and empower your customers to do your marketing for you.