Jackie Huba

Can a bicycle change your life?

mug-lynette_chiang It did for Lynette Chiang. While working as a copywriter for advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, Chiang purchased a bike in 1996 and decided it was time to see the world. She ordered a $995 custom-built unit from Oregon-based Bike Friday as her vehicle; the company hand-makes each machine — which folds up and fits into a small suitcase — according to the buyer’s height, weight and bicycling needs.

Chiang trekked through dozens of countries on several continents and chronicled her adventures on her own website. Her stories showcase her plucky Australian roots, which began as an Oracle programmer and later morphed into an art director and copywriter. It didn’t take long before Chiang’s enthusiasm for traveling and her trusty Bike Friday bicycle had the attention of the Bike Friday founders.

“She was better than any third-party endorsement,” says company founder Hanz Scholz of Chiang’s enthusiasm for traveling on a Bike Friday bike. A years-long courtship ensued, and finally Scholz persuaded Chiang to fold up her
bike and the rest of her possessions and move to Eugene.

Since her arrival at Bike Friday as the company’s official World Traveler/marketing chief, this 25-person operation has been amassing an impressive volunteer sales force. There’s the 70-year-old Australian woman who has helped the company land over 180 customers worth $300,000 in sales. A woman in San Francisco has referred over 70 customers, worth over $100,000. Now with 10,000 customers, Bike Friday’s customer evangelism efforts are paying off handsomely: a customer referral system that drives more than half of all new customers and over $3 million per year in revenues.

Chiang’s marketing strategy is simple by definition yet comprehensive in its execution: “We want people riding more, driving less and seeing the world at a slower, gentler pace,” she says. Since Bike Friday is a small company with an even smaller marketing budget, an evangelism marketing strategy is borne out of necessity.

Based partly on the principles found in Carl Sewell’s book, Customers for Life, and what Bike Friday founder Scholz (and his brother, Alan) personally believe, Chiang says that every company “should take every opportunity to show the human side of their business.”

“At the end of the day, there is a human being who is buying your product; people lose site of that with their policies, advertising, mass emails,” Chiang says. “The role of the evangelist is to make a connection with a human being. In selling loyalty and a brand, you need to understand that brands need to be built for the long haul.”

That makes sense, considering that Bike Friday’s customers are not fickle teens but 40-something, well-heeled professionals who travel extensively and cherish personalized service. They’re not bashful, either. The company’s customer-focused marketing pictures customers with their bikes in various parts of the world and perhaps most uniquely, the customer’s email address. It’s as if Apple Computer were to include the personal phone number of every person who appears in their brilliant “Switch” commercials.

In her time with the company, Chiang has built a series of programs for creating customer evangelists. Her tireless evangelism is an excellent model for any small company with a unique product and a non-existent marketing budget. Here’s a look at Chiang’s recipe for success:

Customer plus-delta.

The company operates an email discussion list for its customers. Hundreds of them share information, problems and tips. Chiang reads the forum everyday and looks for complaints. After working to address customers’ problems, often she’ll send the complaining customer a $30 gift certificate for sharing his opinion. “Every customer is important and you must follow-up on this stuff,” she says. “You can’t let customers slip away.”

Build the buzz. 

Each Bike Friday bicycle successfully fulfills the first rule of buzz: Deliver an outstanding product. Since their bicycles can be folded in 30 seconds and packed into a carrying bag, this creates more buzz. Chiang and Bike Friday help fuel it by encouraging customers to refer future customers; customers are given postcards with their name on the return address and encouraged to send them to prospects.

“The portion of the referral card that the prospect retains has a space for the customer to write their name and contact information in case the prospect wants to call and say, hey, I ran into you the other day… tell me more about your bike,” Chiang says.

The Sept. 11 attacks significantly hurt sales, forced layoffs and jeopardized the company’s existence. To save itself, the company organized a long West Coast ride and asked existing customers to help them find new ones. The resulting stream of emails, phone calls and faxes enabled the company to rehire most of the laid-off staff by Christmas.

Napsterize your knowledge.

The company makes its mechanics readily available to answer questions or more importantly, fix things. It does this through in-person clinics and its website. Customers on the email discussion list readily share information as well, helping lower Bike Friday’s support costs.

The company also has a “blind” ownership policy: If a customer sells her bike to someone else, Bike Friday considers the new owner to be a first-time customer, with all of the same benefits of ownership and support.

Create community.

In 2002, Chiang launched the Bike Friday Club of America. It’s a free club for anyone who wants to ride their bikes regardless of the manufacturer, although it neatly works as a bite-size chunk for introducing prospects to the Bike Friday product. The club began with local rides in Eugene and has grown to 14 chapters across the country. Chiang finds a ride leader in each city then sends email to people in her database who live within a 60-mile radius, inviting them to join the ride.

“She has quite a following,” Schultz says of Chiang’s work with the club. Says Chiang, “People are not islands, they want to get together,” she says.

Create a cause.

The company clearly articulates a cause that is bigger than buying an $1,800 folding bicycle. The company’s mission is to help people focus less on motorized vehicles and more on human-driven power. With global warming a continuing threat and our reliance on fossil fuels contributing to record smog leves, how wrong can that be?

Find out more about Lynette Chiang on her personal website: www.galfromdownunder.com.

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