Word of mouth can be the best thing since sliced bread if you own a small business – or like handing out doses of hemlock to your potential clientele. Which metaphor applies depends on what kind of word of mouth is circulating about your business.
Word of mouth is more important than ever in our online-oriented society. Online reviews are available for everything from doctors to dog walkers, and according to a study by BrightLocal, nearly 9 in 10 consumers read online reviews of local businesses, and 72% of consumers said that they used positive reviews to determine whether a business was trustworthy.
So what can you do to get and keep that good word of mouth spreading? Here are ten ways to grow positive word of mouth.
Provide Good Customer Service
I'm a big promoter of good customer service because it's one of the few ways that small businesses can compete with larger businesses, especially those that focus on low prices. I've written a lot of articles on how small businesses can provide good customer service, but there's no real secret to it.
How important is customer service to word of mouth? According to a survey by ClickFox, more than half of disgruntled customers will tell their friends and family about poor customer service experiences, and 32% will take their business elsewhere.
Show your customers that they are important to you and treat them with the courtesy, respect and interest that you would hope for in their place. Listen to customer complaints, learn from them, and train your employees accordingly. Follow these practices consistently, whether you run a retail store or a website, and positive word of mouth is sure to follow.
Make It Easy for Your Customers to Contact You
Poor communication practices will drive away not only the customer that was trying to reach you but the other people he tells about his frustrating experience, too. Supposed business phones that just ring and ring and don't even connect to an answering machine or that connect to full voice mail boxes are pet peeves of mine.
Equally annoying are websites that don't provide easily accessible contact information or the correct hours of business. And don't even get me started on people who run home businesses and have their business phone answered by their children or have loud music playing or the television blaring in the background when you call.
If you want positive word of mouth, your small business has to be reachable. Answer your emails promptly and get all the necessary phone services, including voice mail and call forwarding. And make sure that your business phone is answered properly in a way that will encourage business, not discourage it. Need a refresher? Read Phone Answering Tips to Win Business.
Maintain a Positive Image
For small business owners, this means remembering that you are never off and that you need to treat all people with courtesy and respect – not just the customers that are in front of you. Don’t be one of those idiots who cuts people off in traffic while driving a vehicle with a website and business logo emblazoned on it or one of those jerks who yells at the kids' soccer referee during the game. People love to tell other people stories about the jerks they've recently encountered and your behavior will affect your small business.
It Pays to PAK Your Business Image explains more about presenting and maintaining the kind of image that will help grow positive word of mouth instead.
Clean and Pleasant Surroundings Are a Must – Even on the Web!
In my little town, I was once told that at a particular restaurant, the owner was spotted one day sitting on the toilet peeling potatoes. Whether or not this is a true story, I've never been to that restaurant since; I can’t help but think of it as dirty and unsanitary. See how bad word of mouth works?
Good word of mouth travels, too. People will tell other people how organized your shelves are, what state your rest rooms are in, or how pleasant your waiting room is.
To get good word of mouth building about your small business, think about what makes up a pleasant customer experience in your case and make sure that all the elements that would contribute to such an experience are in their best shape.
On the web, that means things such as having search functions and site organization that make items easy to find and visible information on ordering and shipping and returns.
Ask for Testimonials and Display Them Prominently
Testimonials from satisfied customers (short written statements praising your service, products or both) are powerful endorsements and can really spark good word of mouth. Get in the habit of asking for them. As I point out in How to Ask for Referrals, the time that you're asking for referrals is also an excellent time to ask a client for a testimonial.
Once you get testimonials, make sure you use them to maximum effect, posting them on your website, on your Facebook page, in your advertising, in your store... wherever they will be visible to the public and seed a positive image of your small business.
Give Lessons or Seminars
While giving lessons or seminars will involve some planning time and effort to execute, the word of mouth it can generate can pole vault your small business over the opposition. It can also dovetail really well with other word of mouth strategies such as getting positive publicity.
The two secrets to success for providing lessons or short courses that I've gleaned over the years are to select something that your clientele will be interested in but is limited enough to be manageable, and to be sure to budget your time so that your presentation or course fits nicely into the allotted slot. You don't want people going away disgruntled because they didn’t get what they came for at all or only got some of it.
Engage Customers on Social Media
Remember, word of mouth is all about people saying good things about your small business. And social media is where many of them are talking now. Your small business needs to be in that space. It's not hard to set up a Twitter account or create a business page on Facebook.
But note that word of mouth involves other people talking about your business. Your telling everyone repeatedly what great products you have or service you give is going to do absolutely nothing for your word of mouth.
Instead, develop a social media strategy that will let you engage customers and entice them into saying good things about your small business.
Monitor Your Online Reputation
As many of the conversations about your business and your brand are happening online, you need to know what’s being said there. So it's important to monitor your online reputation and see what kind of word of mouth is being spread about you.
Particular social media applications have specific tools to help you do this. Twitter Search, for instance, lets you search for a brand or product name. You can then see which RSS feeds your search item is appearing in by adding the RSS feed for that query to your RSS reader such as Google reader or Bloglines.
There are also independent online reputation monitoring tools such as Social Mention, which lets you receive free daily email alerts about your small business. Trackur and StepRep are just two examples of the growing number of companies offering online reputation monitoring for a price.
Get Positive Publicity for Your Small Business
Positive publicity is money in the bank for your business. Whether it's a photo of you handing over a cheque to a charity in the local newspaper or a tweet mentioning a tennis tournament your business is sponsoring, publicity puts your small business in the forefront of people's minds and makes them much more inclined to spread good word of mouth about it.
So when they need a plumber, for instance, they think of Pete's Plumbing (your business), rather than another plumber or none at all. And when their neighbour needs a plumber and doesn’t know who to call and asks them if they know one, guess what? There's your business being mentioned again.
Contribute Visibly to Your Community
Social responsibility, community building – whatever you call it, doing good can only do good things for your word of mouth. Sponsoring community or charitable events is one way of doing it. Another is to take an active role in community organizations, such as sitting on hospital, school or other boards. Be a person who's willing to work to get things done and support community organizations and others will take notice.
Large corporations such as Target and Coca-Cola donate as much as 2% of their earnings to charitable organizations - why? Because it improves the reputation of the company and is good for business.
Word of mouth is something that is going to happen, whether you pay it any attention or not. But it can be such a powerful marketing strategy for your small business it seems silly to ignore it. Why not tune into what people are saying about your small business and speed the spread of positive word of mouth though by applying the strategies above? All that can happen is that you’ll gain a bigger customer base and that’s good for business.