The simple secret to getting more word-of-mouth referrals

Jan 23, 2017

OK. Put your donut down for a minute and pay attention. I have some questions for you:

  • Can you recommend a career coach for my cousin who’s thinking of leaving her job?
  • Can you recommend a mason who could repair my front steps?
  • Can you recommend a recruiter who could find a vice president of marketing for my 25-store restaurant chain?

Take a look at the questions again and this time, pay attention to what your brain does as you read them.

If your brain is anything like mine (i.e., squishy, hardworking and predisposed to help), upon reading each of these questions, it diligently starts searching itself to see if it can find a match:

  • “My friend Sandy is a career coach.”
  • “Maybe. There’s a guy I play basketball with who I’m pretty sure is a mason.”
  • “Hmmm… I know a couple of recruiters but I’m not sure if any of them work in food service.”

And even though these are made up examples (except for the part about my front steps; I really do need a mason), this is exactly how word of mouth business – both B2B and B2C – gets done every day:

You and I ask the people we know for ideas and recommendations relative to our immediate problems. The people we know try and help.

I mention all this because when it comes to getting enough of the clients we want, most of us professional service providers are too focused on proving how capable we are and not focused enough on getting recommended in the first place.

“Now wait a second,” you probably just said out loud to your computer monitor and/or mason. “Isn’t that the same thing? Aren’t recommendations based on capability?”

In a word, no. In two words, not really.

Think about it. When I ask you for a recommendation relative to a specific problem, you immediately start looking for a match: A career coach who works in job transition. A mason in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. A recruiter who specializes in marketing people for the food service industry.

Sure, if you know a great coach, or a skilled mason, or a terrific headhunter, all the better. But at this initial, “Who do you know?” stage, it’s all about the match.

It’s so much not about capability, in fact, that in my experience, most of the people who offer up potential names, haven’t even worked firsthand with the people whom they’re recommending. All they know is that this person they’re telling you about appears to do the thing you need to get done.

Remember, people have very specific problems. A key piece of your marketing therefore, is making sure that your name appears on someone’s lips when the “Can you recommend…?” question is asked.
So try this: Stop trying to impress the people you meet with fancy-pants phrases that shine brightly for a minute and then evaporate. (I’m pretty sure that last sentence was a triple-mixed metaphor). Instead, just help others understand and remember what you do.

Don’t say: “I’m a human capital development expert with a 20-year track record of helping Fortune 500 companies increase employee productivity through world class internal communication documents.”

Say: I’m a human resources consultant. I specialize in developing employee handbooks.
Nothing about how good you are, or the results you create, or who you’ve worked with in the past, or anything like that. Just a simple statement describing what you do.

Something they can understand. Something they can remember. Something that will make you pop into their heads the next time someone says, “Can you recommend…?”

Here’s the bottom line. Being seen as an experienced, capable, impressive professional who can get the job done is important, no doubt about it.

But none of that matters until someone throws your name into the ring as a possible contender. And that won’t happen (much) until what people think you do matches what people think they need. Keep it simple.

Michael Katz

Michael Katz is Chief Penguin of Blue Penguin Development. He specializes in developing email newsletters for professional service firms. Sign up for his free newsletter, The Likeable Expert Gazette.