The Reality of “Word of Mouth”

“We get most of our referrals by word of mouth.”

I realized that I had said that the other day and began to wonder what “word of mouth” referrals mean to a business. It is common knowledge that word of mouth is the best form of marketing. It implies a direct verbal testimonial from one person or group to another. I can’t imagine a better way to build trust in my brand. I have gotten some nice business from recommendations from current and former clients.

But, when I started to look a little deeper, I realized that word of mouth can fail like other advertising. Specifically, person-to-person testimonials are difficult to:

  • Attribute correctly
  • Control message

Giving “Word of Mouth” Credit

One of the greatest challenges we face attributing why we did or didn’t get X amount of business, is not being honest to ourselves. I have seen businesses completely ignore a marketing plan then chalk success up to “word of mouth”. Well, what else could it be, right?

Wrong. Businesses either ignore or are completely unaware that whether they want it or not, if they have a business, somebody has made an advertisement for them. There are thousands of online business directories available to anyone with a computer or cell phone that have your business on them. These directories spring from purchased data from huge data collection firms. Without your knowledge or permission. If a potential customer happens to see one of these listings while searching for a product or service, that influenced their decision. Maybe a testimonial closed the deal or not.

Many businesses leave small signs on a property that they serviced. Real Estate, landscaping and home improvement firms do this well. Construction companies place large signs in front of construction projects they are running. Still confident about “word of mouth”?

An Uncontrolled Marketing Channel

Perhaps more problematic is the fact that word of mouth is a two-edged sword. How much business do you think you have lost because of word of mouth? It only takes one disgruntled customer to set a company way back. What if these are the conversations people are hearing?

  • Wow, I just had Company X do a project for me and the whole project was amazing!
    (What we believe all word of mouth is)
  • I’m looking to do X. Do you have someone you could recommend?
    (Good! Maybe.)
  • I just saw Company X online. Do you know anything about them?
    (Response could be good, bad or don’t know. Two out of three are bad.)
  • I hired Company X to do this job for me and I’ve never had a worse experience in my life or
  • I hired Company X and although they did a good job overall, make sure watch them with Y.
    (Mistrust and maybe erroneous information now firmly entrenched)

Tell people what you do, what to expect (and what NOT to expect) and give them an easy means of communicating with you. Resolve problems before they fester into something nasty. Congratulations, you have taken a good deal more control over what people see. If five clients give you four to five stars in online reviews, the negative word of mouth comments lose some of their sting.

“People Who Are Looking for My Service Don’t Look Online”

This is a really big assumption. If you deal in high dollar items or services and think nobody would ever research your niche online, you are wrong. Try this. Search your competitors and see what they’re doing. Very large companies that land billion dollar deals invest a lot in their marketing. This, even though the final contract is signed between a team or rep meeting face to face. Relying on person-to-person recommendations here doesn’t give you much room for error. Want to convince a client to turn loose of $5 million on word of mouth?

The reality is that most businesses know that marketing is complicated these days. It looks expensive at first glance.

But at least one of your competitors is going to market their service or product to get the customer before you do. Unless you aren’t interested in growing or your company name is Amazon or Google, you need to control your marketing message. And if you don’t know how, get help from someone who does.