March  2004      Vol. 13, No. 3  REAP HOME PAGE  A publication of the Center for Rural Affairs    
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Word-of-Mouth: The World’s Best Known Marketing Secret
Marketing is a topic that comes up frequently when REAP associations plan their programs. This article is adapted from by Ivan R. Misner, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Masters of Networking.

What if there were a way to build your business, year in and year out, regardless of fluctuations in the economy or the activities of your competition? Well, there is. It’s called word-of-mouth.

Word-of-mouth marketing truly is the world’s best-known marketing secret. Practically every businessperson knows how important word-of-mouth marketing is, yet almost no one truly understands how to build his or her business through word-of-mouth.

Some people think that word-of-mouth is a little like the weather: fairly important, but not much they can do about it. Many others think that it’s just about good customer service, but it’s not. Good customer service is critical for the success of any business, but if you expect happy customers to talk about you a lot – think again.

For the past two decades, I’ve talked to tens of thousands of business professionals about word-of-mouth marketing and customer service. I’ve described how the “average unhappy client” can talk to dozens of people about their bad experience.

I’ve then asked my audiences if their “average happy client” truly talks to as many people as a potential unhappy client. In two decades, no one has ever said yes to that question.

Unfortunately, people are more likely to talk about your business when they are unhappy than when they are happy or satisfied. Therefore, good customer service generally reduces “negative” word-of-mouth. However, the good news is, there are many things entrepreneurs and business professionals can do to positively impact their business through word-of-mouth.

Here are three important things that a business professional can do to start the process of increasing their business through word-of-mouth.

Diversify your networks. I believe that most business professionals are cave dwellers. They get up each morning in a large cave with a big-screen TV called their home. They go out to their garage and get into a little cave with four wheels called their car. They go to another really big cave with plenty of computers called their office.

At the end of the day, they get back into their little cave and drive back to the large cave, and they can’t figure out why no one is referring them. If you want to build your business through word-of-mouth, you have to be visible and active in the community by participating in various networking groups and/or professional associations.

Develop your Contact Spheres. Contact Spheres are businesses that are symbiotic and noncompetitive to you. For example: a lawyer, an accountant, a financial planner and a banker. All of them have clients with overlapping similar needs. They can all work with and refer each other easily. Another good example is what I call the wedding mafia: a florist, a photographer, a cake decorator, a jeweler and a travel agent. A referral for one of them becomes a referral for all of them.

You should immediately determine what professions fit within your Contact Spheres and start developing relationships with them.

Word-of-mouth is more about farming than about hunting. Building your business through word-of-mouth is about cultivating relationships with people who get to know you and trust you. People do business with people in whom they have confidence.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in the past two decades is this: It’s not what you know, or whom you know; it’s how well you know them that counts. If you go into this process understanding this one key point, you will have a better opportunity to build your business through word-of-mouth.

Ivan Misner is the founder and CEO of BNI, the world’s largest referral organization. He also teaches business courses at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA and resides in Southern California with his wife and three children. Dr. Misner can be reached at

Dealing with Negative Word-of-Mouth
At some point, your business may fall victim, warranted or not, to negative word-of-mouth.
It’s essential you nip the problem in the bud before it leads to devastating results. Here’s how to fight back:

The best way to counter negativity is to create positive word-of-mouth. Try to get to the source of the problem and specifically answer the charges.

Negative comments are often spread by discontented customers. Compile your customer complaints, and see if there’s a pattern. Do you have a problem with a particular product or service? Or could a disgruntled employee be the cause? The best way to find out is to ask customers what they think about your business.

Finally, plan ahead. Have emergency plans in place in case there is a problem. And if you encourage an open relationship with your customers, you’ll likely be able to head off the problems before they happen.

Excerpted from Get Smart: 365 Tips to Boost Your Entrepreneurial IQ. Rieva Lesonsky, Entrepreneur Magazine.

 Contact: Monica Braun, REAP Business Specialist, 402.643.2673 or
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