Word-of-mouth marketing is one of the most powerful tools in sales today, and yet, it remains deeply misunderstood and underused.
In my extensive sales training work in North America and abroad, even when I’m working with highly experienced professionals, I find many can’t fully explain word-of-mouth, how to create it, or why it works. Even when they’ve previously benefitted directly from it, they struggle to identify how it even happened in the first place. All they know is that word-of-mouth exists and that it’s important to have.
That’s a deeply unsatisfying answer.
Like all aspects of marketing, word-of-mouth isn’t something that just happens. It’s the outcome of a series of deliberate steps designed to produce an anticipated outcome. Remember: There’s no such thing as an "accidental" network in marketing.
Word-of-mouth is only meaningful if it’s something you create for yourself. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of chance or luck. And luck comes and goes. Your business and professional career deserve better than that.
When people who have worked with you are saying great things about the experience, you need to have a thorough understanding of:
- who is talking;
- what they are saying;
- why they are saying it; and
- how you can amplify that message.
Building on what we have previously covered in developing insider status with your clients, let’s look at how to build a deliberate network within your sales territory, and create the ideal conditions for word-of-mouth to thrive.
How to Build a Word-of-Mouth Sales Referral Program
1) Define what word-of-mouth means to you.
You want your best customers to be telling your story, so your word-of-mouth strategy must be focused squarely on them. They're the "mouth" part of your word-of-mouth efforts.
Next, think about the specific "words" they'll be sharing. When selecting those top customers, identify the core benefits that you deliver every time. Those benefits are what you want them to be talking about. Consider writing case studies or invite them to provide testimonials that highlight these key benefits.
2) Be in the right places.
Being ubiquitous is just one component of a word-of-mouth strategy. You can’t create momentum unless you show up regularly. And even then, there’s no point in creating word-of-mouth among the kinds of customers that are a bad fit for your business. Choose the right locations, focusing on your target audience.
Keep in mind that this entails managing your brand socially as well as professionally. If your marketplace is the same one you live in, recognize that your buyers are forming opinions about you when you’re off the clock -- at your kid’s soccer game, at the grocery store, or at the bar on a Friday night.
3) Eliminate friction points.
It should never feel like work for your best customers to find and contact you. Otherwise, why would they recommend you to friends?
Assess the channels through which people can reach you. Do you have a succinct email address? Are you searchable by name on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook? Do you have multiple phone numbers that all route callers to voicemail, or do you have a single hotline number that leads to a live person?
If you’re a smaller business, does your website have a clear call-to-action that puts your reader in direct contact with you with minimal effort? If you’re part of a larger operation, are there gatekeepers or other stumbling blocks that prevent people from reaching you directly? Eliminate every friction point possible.
4) Be an authority.
If you want your best customers to recommend you, don’t just rely on the great buying experience you deliver each time. Give them a reason that goes beyond the buying process. Prove that you’re an expert in your field.
How should you do this? Speak at industry events. Write and produce how-to videos and blog posts. Be sure to not overlook local business events, as well as university and college seminars.
For many years, I was the invited guest lecturer at the end-of-semester sales management class at a local college. I was the last person these new graduates talked to before they went on to their careers in sales.
5) Serve first, then sell.
When you put yourself out there as a trusted authority, be clear about your motivation. Be there to serve people -- to help them with their problems. Be the leader they’ve been searching for. Selling should always be secondary. If your motivation is backwards, people will know and you’ll repel rather than attract.
Consider doing some pro bono work. Just make sure you're doing it to make a difference -- not to secure leads. Otherwise people will see right through you.
And serving people with a genuinely generous spirit means being prepared to lead by example. Offer your network of referrals for professional or personal services. The best sellers are quick to say “You should meet … ” and then introduce their current client to a new potential one. Help others first. That is how you help yourself.
Word-of-mouth is a deliberately formed network. You must choose it for yourself and you must foster it to give you the results you need so that your business can thrive. Following the steps I’ve outlined, you will be creating the ideal conditions for word-of-mouth to take root and grow at your business.