A sundae isn’t a sundae until it gets the cherry on top. In the same way, a growing number of backyard retailers are realizing that the sale of a high-ticket item isn’t complete until it’s been capped off with an unexpected token of appreciation — one aimed at setting their business apart, cementing customer loyalty and prompting the ever-important referral.

Sending a dozen cookies still warm from a baker’s oven is how Ray Schureman, owner of Backyards of America, makes a fuss over his clients following a purchase. And at the time of a spa delivery, the Midvale, Utah, retailer gives the new owners two high-quality, terry-cloth towels emblazoned with the manufacturer’s logo.

“That branding will linger in the household every time it’s used or goes in and out of the dryer,” says Shureman, who estimates that 25 percent to 35 percent of his business comes from referrals.

Such gestures, while simple, can be highly effective marketing tools, according to David Frey, founder of SpaPoolSuccess.com and author of the book 33 “Out of the Box” Marketing Strategies to Jumpstart Your Pool and Spa Business (Marketing Best Practices Inc., 2003).

“High-ticket industries are notorious for forgetting about you once they make the sale,” Frey says. “This is a way to show that you care about [clients] after the sale. It provides them with an experience they can talk about to other people. And depending on what you give, it will be a constant reminder to the people who bought from you how cool your company is.”

Wrapping up the sale

Valerie Green, sales manager at Central Iowa Pool & Spa in Des Moines, began implementing a gift-giving program after hearing about the sales technique from another dealer.

Once a couple has placed a deposit on their purchase, Green sends a small basket to the lady of the house. It includes a dozen fresh-baked cookies, a mug and helium balloons featuring the company’s logo. Green sends the gifts to the woman’s place of business.

“It gets our name into their workplace,” Green says. “We’ve sent them to hospital nurses, for example, and the other nurses will say, ‘I want to buy a pool or spa!’”

The retailer’s generosity continues upon delivery of the vessel. A second basket containing towels, champagne glasses, sparkling apple cider, fragrances, sunscreen, flip-flops and dive rings is sent.

Marketing strategist Jennifer McCay applauds that. “I recommend using more than just a one-time gift to stay on your customers’ radar,” says McCay, founder of Avenue East Communications Inc. in New York and author of The High-Concept Brand Bible, published by her firm last year. “This repetition will sear your company brand into the minds of your customers to the point that they won’t forget you. That is, they won’t forget to credit you when people inquire years from now about the source of their pool or spa.”

Pulling out all the stops

McCay and Frey agree that the best gifts are not only creative, but also go beyond people’s expectations. “It should be a ‘wow’ experience, something out-of-the ordinary that will get people to actually talk about you,” Frey says. “People don’t talk about normal stuff. You’ve got to engender that word-of-mouth.”

Joe Sarcia, co-owner of Sunwrights Spas & Sunrooms in East Hartford, Conn., pampers clients by offering them a choice of an aromatherapy gift, monogrammed glasses or a spa-side table once they complete their new-owner orientation. “We find that it makes them feel even more positive about the experience, and it carries on the sweet feelings that they have about the service they’ve gotten,” he says. “Your customers are your best assets for future business because they refer their friends, so it benefits your business long-term that way.”

Rocky Mountain Pools & Spas in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, takes pride in sending gifts with a deluxe, personal touch. “When you’re at a client’s home for site inspections, playing with the family dog and talking to the kids, it’s almost like you’re a family guest,” says Rob Neal, immedate past general manager.

Only after establishing rapport will Rocky Mountain Pools decide upon the appropriate gift. “Sometimes, depending on how things went and how we feel the long-term relationship is going to be with this client, it pays to go big,” Neal adds. “We’ll buy them dinner for two with cocktails at the nicest steakhouse here in Calgary, or tickets to a sporting event.”

He has no doubt that the company’s generosity in concluding a sale has helped grow its business: “Our referral rate is very high. At least one in three people who purchase a spa from us do so as a direct result of a referral from an existing client.”

McCay adds, “It is incredible the amount of loyalty you can win from customers if you show them that you put them first.”

Many business owners mistakenly think quality service alone should merit a happy customer and referrals. “If you merely deliver what you promise, you’re not necessarily going to have unhappy customers, but you sure won’t thrill them either,” McCay says. “It’s your job to cut through the fray and get noticed.”