What’s the old saying? For every three people who praise your business, ten others complain about you? That may be hogwash, but I know from experience that the last thing a business owner wants is someone running their mouth off about a bad customer service experience, especially if we were never given the chance to make it right.

Social media gives us a platform to bitch about the ways we’ve been done wrong, and that negative buzz spreads quickly. The good news is we also use social media to rave about our good experiences. If businesses are smart, they’re listening and will turn a negative into a positive by responding, taking action and learning.

But I’m not here to talk about the bad guys. I’m focusing on businesses (and non-profits) whose customer service or marketing has impressed me lately. I’ll shine a monthly spotlight on a few smarties whose actions, large or small, made me smile.

Small gestures start relationships.

I never expect to get anything for free. If I do, I’m instinctually suspicious. What’s their angle? Sometimes, however, generous gestures are made with good intentions.

Days before vacation, my reading glasses fell apart. With a pile of new books to read, ack, what a disaster! I searched for a local eyeglasses store with hopes they’d fix my glasses for a decent price without trying to hard-sell me into buying a new pair.

If you’ve worn glasses a long time, you might think this experience isn’t so unusual. But I really didn’t expect Oasis Eye Care to repair my glasses for free — in less than five minutes and with a friendly helpful attitude. I would have paid, what do I know? When I’m ready to buy a new pair of glasses, guess where I’m going?

Lesson: Small gestures that don’t cost much and don’t take much effort mean more to your prospects and customers than you realize. We’re grateful and we remember. We also remember when you nickel-and-dime us. And we talk.

The next examples are inspired by a conference I didn’t attend because I was at the beach reading books with my repaired glasses. However, I read enough recap blog posts and tweets to form an impression about these three organizations. Social media is some powerful stuff, huh?

Give back, get buzz, have fun.

DelCor Technology Solutions, a member and exhibitor at the recent American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) conference, found a way to donate money to a charity while creating buzz and attracting attendees to their exhibit booth for a bit of fun.

Their blog and tweets invited attendees to visit their booth and have their photos taken with a life-size cardboard cutout of one of their advertising characters. If the visitor tweeted her photo, she was eligible to win a $500 donation for her favorite charity. I have no idea how successful this was, but I love the spirit (and savvy) behind it, so that’s enough to get them into the Smart Set this month.

Lesson: While the competition tries to create awareness and traffic by doing the same old things (visit our booth for a chance to win an iPad!), offer a different experience, one that makes everyone feel good – good about themselves and good about you. Appeal to our hearts and tickle-bones, our mind will follow.

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DelCor's booth at #ASAE11

Listen, learn and improve.

The blogosphere’s reaction to last year’s ASAE conference was mixed. Many people, including myself, were hesitant about attending another unless changes were made to improve the learning experience. After hearing reports about this year’s conference, I’ve moved back into the positive camp.

ASAE obviously listened to complaints about last year’s conference and took them very seriously. Several blog posts, for example, here, here and here, praise ASAE for the improved attendee experience.

Lesson: Never get complacent. Don’t live in a bubble. Keep your eyes and ears open to new ideas. Listen to your gadflies. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you try a few new things? Let your competition sit on their butts, you’ve got new trails to climb. Think how good it will feel once you’re on the summit.

Make a lasting impression.

St. Louis hosted the ASAE Annual Meeting and went all out for the “association for associations.” #ASAE11 was their audition for the executives who choose cities for future conferences and trade shows. They knew it and they didn’t miss a beat. Their well-coordinated efforts to welcome and help attendees were a topic of discussion on Twitter and in session rooms. Even the mayor sent out an alert to city businesses.

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And he kept on tweeting throughout the conference, replying to attendees and retweeting tourist tips.

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The locals tweeted back, making suggestions for restaurants, bars and other places to visit. They helped to sell another one of the city’s charms — helpful friendly residents. I’d be willing to bet that the St. Louis CVB will receive a lot of calls from meeting planners in the near future.

Lesson: Know when to make a big impression for the long-term. Your job is to not only serve that customer tonight but to get him raving about you to his friends and colleagues and get him back in the door for another visit.

That’s the Smart Set for this month. If you’ve been impressed by the marketing or service of a smart company or organization lately, let me know in the comments. They might be candidates for next month’s Smart Set.

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Just one more thing: Someone asked me about the phrase “Color Me Impressed.” It’s the title of a Replacements song from 1983. Were any of you at their 1989 show at the Warner Theater in DC?