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How to Sell by Word of Mouth

If you want to build business by word of mouth, you've got to have the kind of story that customers and prospects tell each other. You need to give them something called a "useful, compelling narrative." Let me explain.

A narrative is a simple story (i.e. something with a plot, a protagonist, and an antagonist) that's easy to for one person to tell another. A compelling narrative is one that has an emotional component that inspires people to tell that story to others, thereby creating word of mouth. A useful compelling narrative is one that drives desirable behavior -- like convincing prospects to give you a call.

Every successful word of mouth campaign has a useful compelling narrative. Here are two classic examples:

  • Basic Narrative: Apple computer (the protagonist) wins hearts and minds (the plot) from IBM (the antagonist).
  • Why It Was Compelling: It's a classic underdog story that makes the "little people" feel powerful.
  • Why It Was Useful: It established Apple Computers as a niche product category.
  • Basic Narrative: Media outsider Matt Drudge (the protagonist) reveals secrets (the plot) missed by mainstream media (the antagonist).
  • Why It Was Compelling: Some people distrust mainstream journalism.
  • Why It Was Useful: It established Drudge as a marketable alternative, creating a site with ad revenue.
Although the two examples are very different, in both cases, the narrative was easy to tell, with easily grasped emotions, and drove towards a clear business model.

In sales, your narrative almost always has the same plot: how the customer (the protagonist) worked with you (the plot) to overcome a problem (the antagonist.) Note that you are NOT the protagonist, but part of the plot line.

Remember: the word of mouth that builds your business is the story that your CUSTOMER tells about himself. It's not about how wonderful you were at helping them, but how smart the customer was to work with you in order to solve the problem.

The reason that the recipient of the story calls you (creating the all-important referral) is because the recipient wants to be able to tell the same narrative (i.e. success story) to his or her chums. And that's what builds word of mouth.

Here's another way of looking at it. Which of the following customer remarks do you think are likely to go viral?

  1. Joe is a great guy and easy to work with. You should call him if you've got inventory problems.
  2. We just saved $10 million by getting rid of excess inventory. How? I worked with Joe.
Obviously, it's the second message that's going to resonate (i.e. is compelling) and, more importantly, is more likely to be useful and drive some business your way.

Once you understand your "useful, compelling narrative," you can create word-of-mouth sales by helping your existing customers to tell that story, either by asking them to act as reference accounts, asking that they call potential prospects, setting them up with speaking opportunities, and so forth.