If anyone tries to tell you there’s no way to prove the ROI of thanking your customers, or that sending handwritten thank-you notes “doesn’t scale,” don’t buy it.

Here’s why: The ROI when you thank your customers is inextricably linked to the ROI of word-of-mouth marketing. And when it comes to small- to medium-sized businesses’ toolkits, word-of-mouth marketing is a shiny power drill among screwdrivers.

What’s more, you don’t have to wait for it to happen “organically,” outside your company’s walls — thank-you notes let you cultivate quality word-of-mouth marketing yourself, and for a lower price tag than many other marketing efforts that won’t get you nearly as far.

Thanking your customers generates word-of-mouth

It takes an exceptional product or customer experience to inspire someone to rave to their personal network about it.

One of the lowest-cost but highest-impact ways to prompt your customers to engage in word-of-mouth marketing about your product or service is to send a handwritten thank-you note. Why?

Handwritten thank-you notes are such a rare throwback to old-school customer service, because hardly anyone does it anymore.

They stand out as a delightful gesture, one that makes people feel special enough to call it out and share with others.

Why thank-you notes are making a comeback

Handwritten thank-you notes work better now than they did 20 years ago for a couple key reasons:

  1. They’ve become rare enough to feel unique and special enough to turn customers into loyal ambassadors
  2. Social media has increased the size of customers’ networks, and with it, the size of the audience who hears about it.

Whereas 20 years ago a customer might have told one or two people how nice it was for their mechanic to send a note following a tune-up, now people will snap a photo and share it with hundreds or thousands of friends and followers on their social outlets of choice.

Say, for example, that Vickie purchases a custom art frame from your online store, and you include a handwritten note with her order, complimenting her excellent taste. She’s so impressed that she takes a photo of the note alongside her newly framed watercolor, which she tweets along with a link to your company’s handle. Intrigued, a handful of Vickie’s followers click on your company’s name and perhaps your website, where they learn your price is less than half of the framer they’ve been using! Among those followers is an art blogger, who also gets a thank-you note with her first purchase, and she is so tickled, she blogs about it to a couple thousand readers. And so on.

“It’s not the money that makes these efforts shocking and awesome, it’s the care and creativity involved,” writes Gary Vaynerchuk in The Thank You Economy. “Right now, there is a fortune in word of mouth that can be created,” he continues, for companies who nurture relationships in these small but meaningful ways that turn customers into vocal brand advocates across large social media networks.

In other words, your business can’t afford to ignore the ROI of word-of-mouth, and sending handwritten thank-you notes is an inexpensive but highly effective way to trigger word-of-mouth marketing.

The power of word-of-mouth marketing

A number of successful companies — some well-known examples are Nordstrom, Zappos and Wufoo — are known for thanking their customers via handwritten snail mail. Perhaps they didn’t have the hard data to back it up, but they understood that relationship-building was well worth the (relatively minimal) investment.

Recently, however, a number of studies have sought to prove the value of word-of-mouth marketing, including efforts like sending thank-you notes. According to the 2014 Return on Word of Mouth (WOM) study published by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, “Nothing persuades brand trial, adoption and loyalty better than a recommendation from another consumer, particularly a trusted friend or family member.”

ROI of Thanking Customers Infographic Sources: Help Scout, Marketshare, Oracle, Nielson, Convince & Convert, WOMMA, and McKinsey.

In addition to being a powerful word-of-mouth marketing tactic, additional research shows that the frugal wow of sending a thank-you note inspires other measurable, positive outcomes as well.

Wufoo is known for sending thank-you cards to customers — every week, the team takes time to draft, decorate and mail personalized cards, a tradition that dates back to Wufoo’s early days. And get this: According to Customer Ops team lead Renee Morris, “out of the roughly 800 customers who received handwritten cards from us last year, 50% fewer folks left our product than those who did not receive cards.” Think about that: retention rates are a full 50% better among customers who receive a thank-you note.

In another experiment, the staff of Donors Choose sent hand-written thank-yous to half of all recent first-time donors, and they found that 38% of people who received a thank-you note were more likely to give again than those who didn’t receive one. Thank-you note recipients donate an additional $41 per year on average, translating to more than $3 million in additional donations per year.

Imagine applying that kind of lift to your business. What results would you see if you committed to thanking your customers?

How do you prove the business value of thanking your customers?

Kristi Thompson knows how inarguable those results are. Thompson handles Customer Success for CartStack, an abandoned cart email solution for ecommerce companies, where she’s helped establish a number of mega-high-touch customer experience initiatives.

In addition to providing a high-touch onboarding experience, Thomspon personally writes postcards to people who sign up for trials, sends handwritten thank-you cards and CartStack sticky notes to every customer who converts to a paid plan, and mails holiday cards to every paying customer. She also practices “monthly random acts of kindness,” where she’ll send chocolates, CartStack swag, or other small but personalized gifts, just because. “We get really nice emails from people about how touched they were by our thoughtfulness,” Thompson says.

Customer email

At first, CartStack didn’t have a whole lot of empirical evidence to go on — CEO Brett Thoreson was simply impressed by the personal note Zappos sent him along with a purchase of cleats. “It’s something he remembers to this day and has told a lot of people about,” Thompson said. The inspiration to bring that to his own business was “initially sort of a gut feeling.”

Now, however, CartStack has all kinds of data showing its high-touch service efforts are paying off: Over the past year, the company has doubled its MRR and increased conversion rates between 5-6%. Perhaps more tellingly, 90% of the customer testimonials they’ve collected since launching the thank-you note initiative mention the quality of customer service, compared with 50% of the testimonials collected beforehand.

“It’s an easy thing to do, but a lot of people don’t do it,” Thompson said. “It’s such an easy win, to have a more personal touch and be more human and relational with your customers. So often that personal touch is lost in tech. Because we’re little — we’re bootstrapped, so we don’t necessarily have all these resources to advertise or have big flashy ways to stand out. We have to stand out in a small but sincere way.”

For more on measuring the ROI of your customer service efforts, check out our Step-by-Step Guide to Measuring Customer Service ROI.

Does thanking customers scale?

When you create a routine and build thank-you notes into your schedule, you make keeping track a lot easier on yourself. Start by writing notes triggered by a specific action, such as after a sale or a conversion. Thompson tracks the notes and gifts she sends in a Google spreadsheet. Vaynerchuk suggests scaling “shock and awe” customer experiences by making a list of the 20-30 customers who support your business the most, and sending each of them a handwritten thank-you note with a small gift.

Whatever you do, don’t ask the recipient to take a photo and share on social media. It might get you a few more shares and likes from folks angling for incentives, but it comes across as inauthentic and shallow, clearly aimed at short-term marketing efforts rather than long-term customer relationships. You’ll earn a reputation for genuine, customer-first service when you don’t expect anything in return.

How you orchestrate a thank-you note program is up to you and what makes sense for your business. The takeaway is to do something, anything, because frugal wows are always worth the investment … and because your competition probably isn’t taking the time to do it.

Thank-you notes are a simple, low-cost way to stand out. If Nordstrom and Zappos can do it, so can you. It’s only a matter of making it a priority.

Emily Triplett Lentz
Emily Triplett Lentz

Emily is the Head of Content at Loom and a Help Scout alum. You can find her on Twitter.