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Word of mouth marketing is recognised as the most powerful marketing tool we have in our armoury and as we build our portfolio of clients then word of mouth will be crucial to bring in new clients. This is simulated on social media, but true word of mouth marketing is one person talking to another. However, what I have found, as I have encouraged people to do word of mouth marketing for my business, is that there are three, very distinct, mindsets that people bring to word of mouth marketing.
The first mindset is ‘money talks’. My potential referrer will tell me, “I will refer people to you if, I get a commission”. This may be very superficially attractive. Why would people not want to bring you new business if they get money? However, I am not convinced that this is the most powerful approach. Most people who introduce by word of mouth are not primarily motivated by money. It is relationships that motivate them. The relationship that they have with you and/or the relationship that they have with the person they are connecting you to. Often, they may want to deepen these relationships. In my experience, without that relationship dimension in place, referral networks won’t work.
Referrers: be specific
Be careful to recognise the difference between a referrer and a connector. If you are very specific in asking the right question of a client at the appropriate place in the relationship, along the lines of “who is the person that has similar needs to you that you could refer me to?”, you will get one or two names. You need to put your referrer on the spot and be very explicit about the profile of the person who is your ideal referral. The more specific you are the more likely they are to say, “yes, I can think of someone” or “I cannot think of someone like that but what about someone like this?”
For example, if your target is accounting firms with between five and twenty partners, who are within an hour’s travel time of Borehamwood and who are looking to aggressively grow and need help with talent management then you have made it very very specific.
Connectors: nurture the power
But there is a third and the most powerful source of word of mouth marketing: the connector. In my experience, a small proportion of people have a connector mindset. Those that do are constantly looking for opportunities to connect people they know with each another. It seems to be either a discipline, a habit or just part of their character. They are relentless connectors.
For these people, the key is to make that connecting as simple as possible, because they will just do it anyway but you want them to choose to do it for you. When they do make those connections, you need to give them positive feedback as to the quality of those connections and keep them informed of the results that have flowed. This will encourage them to make more. Because they love doing it, they love the affirmation they get from the person who is connected and from you as the person they introduce. I encourage connectors to send an email to their contact, copied to me, saying, “I think it would be a good thing for you to have a conversation with Charles McLachlan. He is somebody I know and I think he could bring you real value”. This keeps things straightforward for you as the connector. I am not asking you to explain my value or sell my service. You are just saying that this is a good person to have a conversation with. It is a simple connection. There is no explicit endorsement of me or my offer. For you, the reputational risk of the introduction is extremely low. But if, and this is usually the case, the introduction is good for one or both the parties, then it has a halo effect for you as the connector. You become recognised as one of the people that know the people to know.
What do I do?
I have chosen not to take any commission for the referrals I make – I want to be a trusted advisor and stay independent in the recommendations I offer. However, for some of my products, I do offer commission. The nature of the relationships I develop means this commission is rarely taken up.
I do sometimes ask for very specific referrals. This has not been very fruitful: maybe I am asking the wrong people at the wrong time for the wrong thing in the wrong way!
In the world in which I work, I have two or three people who are relentless connectors. They make a connection by email of value to me every three or four weeks. Whenever they meet someone, they are thinking about whether they can connect them to me, or to someone else. I, myself, am committed to relentlessly connecting because I believe in its power. I can also see how it builds my personal reputation. Most importantly, it embodies an unconditional offer of generosity.
As you think about word of mouth marketing consider how can you become a relentless connector. Be intentional about planning it in every meeting you have.
If you are skilled at asking for referrals, then include this in your word of mouth marketing strategy.
If you are part of a community where commission is endemic (financial services come to mind) then recognise its weaknesses as a motivator but accept it may be a necessary, if insufficient, contributor to word of mouth marketing.
Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.