So, you have a great product, provide exceptional service, and offer low prices. You even have a "price match" guarantee. Why, then, isn't your business flourishing? Perhaps it is doing well, but you have dreams of making it to the big time. You want CNBC talking about you and you want your business known around the world. Have you ever gone to an industry conference? This is where you and others in your field gather to learn about all of the new trends in your line of business. What is one of the first things you notice upon your arrival? You blend in. According to the Census Bureau, there are nearly 28 million businesses in the United States. You may be brilliant at what you do, but many of the thousands of people at the conference are brilliant too.
In business, blending in is a problem. Being average is not an accomplishment. To thrive and grow, you and your business need to stand out. How, then, do you stand out when there are so many others doing what you do? You are not, after all, Apple or Walmart - you do not have a mega million dollar advertising budget. You have to find inexpensive ways to get the word out - and that is not easy. Most of the cheapest ways are the low-tech advertising strategies of yesteryear.
Step back for a moment. Transform your role from business owner to customer. When you are considering a purchase, what factors influence you most? A slick ad in the Sunday paper or a recommendation from a family member or friend whom you trust? Word of mouth is still a very powerful driver of commerce. Once it begins, it grows, often exponentially. The question, then, is - how can you attract word of mouth referrals? Step 1 is to get word of mouth started.
Learn to Network Effectively
Networking is not a gift - it is a skill you can learn. If you believe you are simply not the networking type, think again. Not only can you learn to network, but in order to generate word of mouth advertising, networking is necessary.
One of the cornerstones of successful networking has to do with how you approach people with whom you network. For starters, do not approach them with the idea of getting something. Instead, approach them with giving in mind. It may seem counterintuitive, but it works and it works for a reason.
Customers have needs and customers include businesses that you deal with. Your goal is to find out what those needs are and fill them. This involves taking an interest in their lives and business operations. Offer to introduce them to other contacts in your network. Talk about ways in which you can help them. Do not make it about money. Make it about help. The money will take care of itself. When your motives are pure, relationships, and business will grow.
Support a Charity
By collaborating with a charity and supporting them, both with time and with money, you will gain free advertising and access to other people with a passion for giving. These people will not just consider you for their needs. They will also recommend you to others. Your charitable involvement gives you a perceived trust factor that sets you apart from your competition.
Set Up a Referral Program
There are many ways to run a referral program. You could simply communicate with your customers asking them to refer you, but even better, print a discount card and ask them to hand them out to people they know. Not only will the new customer receive a discount, but the person making the referral could receive points or a reward for each referral he or she provides. Beware, though. Do not confuse referrals with online programs where you pay for leads. Only pay for referrals that result in sales. It is easy to get free leads.
Establish Yourself as an Expert
Turn on the radio or TV in the early hours of a Saturday morning and you are likely to see local programs that feature local experts. It might be a landscaping show, a car repair call-in show or any number of vocations where the local media outlet enlists the help of a community expert.
You might not land a spot on the radio or TV at first, but you could offer to speak at community events or senior centers. Teach a class at a community college, start a blog or offer to write an authoritative newspaper column in the local free paper. The only cost to you is your time, but the word-of-mouth buzz you will generate will grow. Eventually an invitation to appear on local television or radio may happen.
Learn to Promote Yourself
There is a fine line between bragging and promoting, but self-promotion is critical to effective word-of-mouth advertising. That does not mean that you dominate a conversation about everything you do. Listen to people and hear what interests them. Speak about your skills or things you do that align with their areas of interest.
Find a Valuable Partner
Maybe you have a swimming pool servicing business. If you live in a southern state such as Florida, you have the advantage of a year-round pool season, but the disadvantage of being only one of many, many pool services. Standing out from the crowd can be difficult. What if you teamed up with a high volume realtor or a realtor that focuses on distressed properties? Being the first pool service a new homebuyer hears about can be a real advantage. All this comes from finding big players in non-competing businesses that can refer you.
Do you have people in your network who you could introduce to each other? All of your friends in business struggle with the same problem as you. They are trying to build a network that will result in more business. By introducing people in your network to each other, you are not only doing a good deed, both people will want to return the favor. The net result for you will be more leads, more customers and more business.
Start a Community
Set up an online message board for customers to post feedback or ask questions. This is a perfect way to show customers you are interested in a relationship, not just an occasional sale. Do not just provide the interface. Be active in replying to customers. If there is a problem, fix it rapidly, and offer expert advice related to their purchase. This type of community building is unique to small businesses. It gives them an advantage over larger retail chains because a person on a Walmart message board may feel like an insignificant part of a larger group. You can provide personalized service where everybody feels valued.
Do Something Out of the Ordinary
When you are talking to friends and family, what do you focus on? The mundane everyday things that happen to you or the extraordinary events? Most of us talk about the extraordinary. What can you do for your customers that would encourage them to talk about you? How about a nice lunch for your larger clients? Buy somebody's coffee and hand him or her your business card. If a client tells you about someone he or she knows who is struggling, offer to help. When you do the extraordinary, people remember and they will talk about you.
Start a Valuable Facebook Page
This may work best for attorneys, financial advisers and other businesses with specialized knowledge, but just about any business can do it. The key word is "valuable." There are more than 42 million Facebook pages, so nobody will come to a page that looks like all of the others. Give something away free. If you are a financial adviser, offer to answer questions about certain subjects at specified times. Tell your clients about this service. Make up small business cards they can give to people they know.
Don't Focus Solely on Your High-Dollar Customers
One study found that the best customers actually referred less than the average customer did. The study looked at a telecom company and found that customers who spent $200-$300 annually made referrals worth more than $1,000. Customers who spent $2,000 or more made referrals worth only $40.
This study proves that although catering to your big customers is important, spending some money on the regulars who do not spend quite as much may be more advantageous over time.
The Bottom Line
Want to know the best way to gain word-of-mouth referrals? Do not just say you have the best service - live it and execute it. You are probably like most consumers. You do not evaluate the quality of the advertising, the look of the store or cleanliness of the parking lot. You appreciate it if the business supports a community cause or has good reviews on Yelp. In the end, however, you make word-of-mouth recommendations for one reason: you believe that the quality of service you received was over the top. It was better than others in the same business and you felt your experience was unique and personal. When your friends ask for a word-of mouth recommendation, you fall back on your experiences that meet those criteria.
When you try to provide that kind of service to every one of your customers, more and more people talk, and that generates more sales. Studies have found that word-of-mouth advertising is more effective than any other advertising medium - and often, it is among the least expensive.