When marketers and business owners talk about Word-of-Mouth, they only think they’re talking about the same thing.

Marketers talk about WOM as “buzz” — i.e., newsworthiness.

Therefore they measure WOM in terms of un-earned media coverage.

Business owners talk about WOM as referred customers showing up at their door.

Obviously buzz ≠ referrals.

And from an owners perspective referrals are far more valuable than buzz.

So here’s the thing about referral-based WOM…

Business owners often think “word-of-mouth is our best advertising” because:

  1. They only see it when it works
  2. They believe they spend no money to get these customers (i.e., WOM is “free”)
  3. The customers they get from referrals show up mostly pre-convinced

And of those three reasons, only the last is an accurate perception.

Why Your Word-of-Mouth Isn’t Working As Well As Your Think

The first reason — only seeing it when it works — inevitably leads to skewed perceptions.

Here’s what business owners don’t see:

  • You don’t see when a customer could have recommended you, but didn’t.
  • You don’t see when a customer’s mediocre endorsement failed to persuade

Because those failure points are invisible, you feel like you’re batting a thousand.

But if you could see them, you’d reassess just how well your WOM is working.

Why “Over-Serving” the Customer Is Bad Strategy

Many business owners harbor an unexamined notion that customer service directly equates to customer experience.

In their minds, the better the service, the better the experience.

And the better the experience, the better the recommendations and referrals.

Unfortunately, all of these connections are indirect at best, non-existent at worst.

First, service isn’t experience. Memory is experience.

So unless a service touchpoint has been intentionally crafted to be remarkable and memorable, it likely won’t improve the remembered customer experience.

People remember beginnings, endings, emotional highlights and lowlights, sensory “tangibles,” and interesting stories.

They don’t necessarily remember service at all.

Second, service costs. So over-serving the customer becomes an expensive proposition with a rather dicey, perhaps even non-existent, ROI.

Now, there are things you can do to improve WOM, but you must first accept that WOM ain’t free.

You can make it a more effective and efficient investment by using smarter strategies than “over serving” the customer, but it’s still an investment.

Third, everyone’s definition of superior customer service differs. Advertising great customer service almost never attracts customers and always results in unmet expectations and increased complaints.

How to Effectively & Efficiently Improve Your WOM Batting Average

To improve referral-based WOM, you must address the failure points.

That means: a) giving customers greater confidence to refer you, and b) providing customers with the tools to give more persuasive referrals.

And the best tools for both aims are:

  • Perspective-shaping vocabulary, and
  • Story-based talking points and descriptions.

Perspective-Shaping Vocabulary

Two of the more blatant examples of perspective-shaping vocabulary are naming the disease and DeBeers use of the 4-Cs.

When whisk gave a name to “ring around the collar,” that name shaped the perceptions of millions of housewives, who then wanted the new tool — liquid detergent — to solve that problem.

When DeBeers wanted to increase the amount Americans spent on engagement rings — by buying higher quality stones — they gave them the vocabulary necessary to conceptualize diamond quality.

This power of vocabulary to shape perception and improve memory and experience was explored by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

In one experiment, Vygotsky had young children draw butterfly wings.

Sometimes the kids drew while looking at the wings, and sometimes they drew from memory.

Curiously, only some kids drawing quality dropped significantly when they had to draw from memory.

Other’s drew about as well from memory as they did while looking at the wings.

What separated them was their vocabulary.

Children who had words for the shapes they saw within the wings — “dot,” “triangle,” “slash,” etc. — were able to draw the wings from memory.

But children without that vocabulary struggled.

Vygotsky then took some of those struggling children and — in a different context — taught them the words for the shapes.

When he retested those newly-taught kids, they too were able to draw the wings well, even from memory. While those who still lacked the vocabulary showed no improvement.

It’s the same with adults: the right words shape and sharpen perception and memory.

And memory becomes experience.

If you wish to improve your customers ability to recall WHY your provided experience was top-notch — and then articulate that powerfully to a friend months or years later — you must give them the vocabulary to do that.

Story-Based Talking Points and Descriptions

A compelling story can be memorized and retold from one exposure, as exemplified by most any urban myths you’ve ever heard.

For example, the one about the Las Vegas tourist who woke up in a bathtub full of ice with a note on his chest informing him that he’s missing a kidney and needs to dial 911.

You hear that story once, you can remember and repeat it forever.

And that’s what you want — for customers to remember and retell stories that will make their recommendations and referrals more persuasive.

And keep in mind: you likely won’t be able to tell customers the story yourself; your people have to know and tell these stories.

That makes ease of memory and transference that much more important.

If you want your staff to promote word of mouth, give them stories to tell highlighting key components of your customer experience.

There’s a world of difference a waiter saying:

“Yeah, we’ve got really great house wine here — especially the white wine — it’s super-premium stuff.”


“Our house white wine is Gavi dei Gavi from Italy and it’s probably the most full bodied white wine you’ve ever tasted. In fact, to measure a wine’s body, you measure the quantity of suspended or dissolved solid substances in the liquid — “dry extract” that’s left after the water and alcohol have been evaporated.

As you might guess, most reds have twice the body of white wine. Except for THIS white wine. This particular Gavi Dei Gavi has as much body as most reds.

Would you like to try some?”

Which one’s more likely to sell a carafe or two of white wine?

Which one is more likely to shape the experience of drinking and appreciating the wine?

And which one is likely to get at least partially repeated during a review or recommendation?

Improving Word-of-Mouth Motivation & Efficacy

Here’s the thing: customers don’t make referrals because they want to help your business. Not primarily, at least.

Customers refer you in order to help themselves first, their friend/acquaintance second, and you third.

Customers make referrals to help themselves look smart, in-the-know, connected, and generous.

So by giving them the vocabulary and stories to help them look smart and in-the-know, you dramatically increase their motivation to recommend you.

And those same tools also make their recommendations much more persuasive.

Amplifying Your WOM Once You’ve Improved It

So here’s the good news: once you’ve created your vocabulary and collected your WOM stories, you’ve actually done all the hard work to create amazing mass media ads.

The same stories that would make a recommendation or referral more powerful coming from a friend will also make your radio ads more persuasively powerful when coming from a spokesperson that is perceived as a friend.

And the more people already know about you and your stories, the more confident your customers will be in recommending you in the first place.

So if the previous steps for improving your WOM seemed daunting, there is a done-for-you shortcut: hire a savvy ad consultant to create a WOM-based mass media campaign.

Or you can do the work yourself and grow your business to the point where you can afford mass media.

Either way works, if you work it.

And anything is better than keeping your blinders on while thinking your not-so-great WOM is “crushing it.”