Kickstart Word-Of-Mouth to Grow Your Business and Increase Leads

Word-of-Mouth is one of the most powerful forms of organic lead generation out there, yet it’s something that we usually feel we can’t control.  Something that just happens.

The truth is that you can kickstart word-of-mouth advertising before you even get your first client!

Most people start their business thinking that they are beginning at ground zero.  But the truth is that you already have a network of people who are more than willing to refer to you (and who might even become your first customer!).

This is exactly what I used when I first started building my SMB (Small to Medium-Sized Business) Consulting firm and what we recommend to many of our clients looking to bootstrap their way to their first handful of clients and raise capital for marketing.

Start by making a list of at least 100 people that you know.  This might seem like a lot, but according to Brandwatch people have an average of 338 friends on Facebook.  Sure, it may have been years (or even decades) since you last spoke to many of them, but the fact that you’re connected on social media will make it easier to approach that person even after many, many years.  Also consider past co-workers, neighbours, your spouse’s extended friends, and even the people you see regularly, but wouldn’t normally consider friends, such as the mailman or your bank teller.

How to Connect Without Feeling Sleazy, Cheesy, or Queasy

Once you’re equipped with your list of 100 acquaintances, it’s time to start reaching out and connecting.  Here is where most people fail because they lead into the conversation hoping to get a referral or sale out of it.

People can sense when someone wants something from them.  Instead of asking them questions related to what you’re selling, reconnect with them as genuinely as you would with a friend.  Ask them about their family and kids.  Ask about their job.  Turn the spotlight back to them when the conversation turns to you (people love to talk about themselves and this will make them feel like you are an excellent conversationalist even if you barely say a dozen words!).

Do not talk about your new business or product until they specifically ask.  This won’t always happen during your first conversation with them so commit yourself to speaking to 5-10 people per day and rotating through your list so that you can keep in constant contact.  The more you speak to someone about themselves the sooner they’ll think “Oh… maybe I should ask about them.  I feel like they know everything about me and I’ve barely let them get a word in edgewise”.

It’s very important that you don’t ask leading questions in this stage.  A leading question is an open-ended question meant to get the other person to divulge information that you can turn around and use to position a sale.  While this can be a great strategy during a discovery or sales call, selling cannot be the goal during these initial connections (people will see through it immediately).  Consider how you would feel if someone that you hadn’t spoken with in a while surfaced back into your life only to try to sell you something.

Let’s say that your product was a weight-loss solution of some sort.  Here’s some examples of leading questions to avoid at this stage:

I see that you posted the other day about some healthy meal ideas.  Do you have a specific health goal in mind?

I remember you saying your husband struggled with sleep apnea.  Has that improved any?

What strategies do you have for keeping the weight off during the upcoming holiday season?

This might seem obvious while reading but it’s a very easy trap to fall into and many, many people do!

Now you might be thinking  ‘if I can’t talk about what I do how will this bring me any new customers?’.

I’m not saying that you can’t talk about what you do.  You just have to wait until they ask you to tell them.  You’ll want to avoid the question until you have established a natural rapport but eventually they’ll ask “what are you up to these days?” or “what do you do for work?” which opens up the doors to ask the magical question:


Who do you know?

Who do you know? Is one of the best ways to not only garner referrals from someone, but to also sell to them.

The magic of this question is outlined quite well by Rich Litvin in the book “The Prosperous Coach”.  He explains that by using the question who do you know? – instead of asking them if they’re interested in the product –  it will keep them from building up the wall that we build when we know someone is selling to us.  This allows your prospect to stay present in the conversation and truly hear what you have to say.

So when approaching the a question like what are you up to these days? Or what do you do for work? you can use who do you know? To gain permission to talk about your new business and keep their attention.

Well it’s funny you ask because I’ve been looking for a new client for a new business project that I’m working on.  Maybe you might know someone who would be a good fit?  (this is a variation of who do you know at work!)  Do you mind if I tell you about it?”

You may be thinking that you already have permission to talk about your work because they asked about it, however most people when they ask that question in the context of a friendly conversation they expect to hear a friendly generic answer back like “I own a personal training studio”.

But that generic answer won’t get you referrals and sales!  We need to talk to them about who we help and the benefits we provide and so to keep the “someone is selling me” wall down we need to get their permission to go a bit further.

Once they say yes (and most people will) this is where you can go on for 1-3 minutes about what your product is and the core benefits that it provides.  Keep it as short as you can and explain it in layman’s terms – don’t try to impress them with your qualifications or make it all about how superior your business and product is.  This should be about them and how they will gain value from the product itself.

Once you’ve expressed why someone might want to buy your product, let them know who it is that the product is for (your ideal customer) and then ask them flat out “who do you know that might be a good fit?”

Often you’ll find that the person you speak to says “Me!  I’m a good fit!” and you can invite them into a separate sales conversation.

(Side note:  don’t sell them right then and there.  Like a doctor or other professional would make an appointment for them to come see you so that the context of the conversation is understood to be that of sales.  This will keep the personal relationship in tact for future referrals down the line and will help you maintain authority on the sales call improving the chances of a conversion).

If they say that they know of someone, don’t just get the referral’s name and number.  Have your friend arrange an introduction and talk about why they thought of that person as a fit.  You can help them script this out a bit.  This is crucial!  A person out of the blue trying to sell you something tends to build that wall up that we talked about earlier.  If instead someone is approached by a friend making a recommendation they will be much more open to receiving the information and considering your proposal.

A word about networking via technology

These days we tend to live in a technological shell.  Often when I work with my business consulting clients I see them trying to do their networking and connection via email, text or messenger chat.  When this is the case I almost always hear from them that conversations are tough to keep up and that they’re struggling to keep things flowing.

It’s so important to remember why technology-based communication became so popular to begin with – it works on our time, not someone else’s.

When marketer Gary Vaynerchuk speaks on stage, he often asks his audience ‘who here was completely pi**ed off the last time someone called you on the phone?’.  Most of the audience raises their hand and you’ve likely felt the very same way.  The phone and vocal communication is an interruption and so we’ve latched on to tech-based communication as a way of taking back control of our time.

This means that if you are using technology to reach out to your contact that the conversation will be constantly interrupted and won’t flow that well.  The person on the other end might get distracted by work (or a Buzzfeed viral video) and take hours to reply.

Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use technology to reach out to those on your 100 hit-list.  It’s actually the perfect way to open up a conversation with someone that you haven’t spoken to in a while.  By all means, ‘creep’ their profile to find some common ground or something to ask them about.  But eventually you’ll want to invite them to coffee or into a phone/Skype chat so that you can connect with them at a much deeper level.

(Bonus:  This is also a great exercise for your social life!)

What to do when you barely know them

This should all flow easily for you after some practice with those that you know well already.  How though do you approach the people in your life that you know might be a good fit but whom you’ve hardly spoken a word to?

Here are 10 tips that will help you open a conversation with anyone:

  • Ask them a question – I’ve often had great conversations with people in line at the store (and I’ve even bagged a client or two doing so!).  Open them up by asking about something they’re in line to purchase like “Excuse me, I see you’re buying a pomegranate.  I just love poms but I have so few good recipes for them that I never end up buying them.  Can I ask you what you’re making with it?”  The average person will be more than happy to let you in on their meal idea and just like that you have a conversation!
  • Give them a genuine compliment – Who doesn’t love getting a compliment?  This only works if what you say is genuine so don’t pick something that you don’t mean because the other person will see right through it and become quite uncomfortable.  It’s best to stay away from generic compliments like ‘you have the most gorgeous eyes’ and to give them something with substance.

    A compliment that I get all the time is ‘I just love your hair’.  Since this is something that I work hard to keep up with, I always feel good when receiving such flattery.  But it’s also pretty generic and often I just end up giving a big smile and a quick ‘thanks!’.  If your ultimate goal is to start a conversation, it’s better to add a bit more substance so that you can follow up your compliment with a question to keep that ball rolling.

    This might sound something like ‘I just love how your hair is styled and how is really compliments the balayage you have!’  which you can follow-up with ‘Can I ask how you get your curls to stay in so well?

  • Stay on top of current news events – When faced with awkward silence my husband will often blurt out ‘so how ‘bout that local sports team?’  It usually gets people chuckling and back on track with the conversation because we all recognize that current events are a go-to and reminds someone in the group of an interesting current event that they could bring up to keep things flowing.
  • Listen more than you speak – When we are so passionate about what we do it can be easy to ramble on (and on… and on…).  We all love to talk about ourselves – and the person you’re trying to converse with is no exception!

    A great trick to use is to pretend that you’re a talk show host.  The host of a talk show keeps the spotlight on their guest and makes them seem like the most interesting person in the world.  They ask questions.  They focus on their achievements.  They pay their guests genuine compliments.  And when the guest asks about them they immediately swing the focus right back the other way ensuring that the focus is on the person they’re speaking with.

    Now it’s important to keep things conversational and not to just drill your new potential friend or client with questions.  Be aware of yourself and sprinkle in some jokes or add a bit of colour to the conversation.  Just remember not to steal the show.

  • Ask them about their favourite local restaurant or hangout – Everyone needs to eat and most people love eating out.

    This is a great way to open a conversation again because of the possibility for follow-up.  You could ask the what their favourite dish is or what makes them love it.  Maybe they’ll share that they love the food because it reminds them of a trip they took to India where they ate similar cuisine.  Or maybe they’ll tell you they used to go there with their grandparents when they were little.

  • Oversharing is uninteresting – Keep your stories short and to-the-point; especially when you’ve just met someone!  No one wants to hear every detail of the daily itinerary from your last vacation.
  • Do not have expectations – make your only goal curiosity – When you become genuinely curious about those around you opportunities seem to place themselves into your lap.  Maybe this is because when you go into a conversation with an expectation (whether that expectation is that you become friends or is that you gain a referral) the other person immediately senses this and becomes uncomfortable.

    Think about it like a first date:  your only goal is to get to know the other person and to see if there’s the potential for something more.  You’re not thinking about commitment at this point.  You’re not thinking about selling them on the possibility of sleeping with you either (or maybe you are… but you certainly aren’t going to win a long-term commitment doing so!)

  • Look for points of commonality – Commonality forms instant bonds so point out something that you share together and you’ll discover that the other person will immediately open up.

    A word of caution on this though – be sure to point out something that’s pretty obvious about the other person – like something they’re wearing or commonality in something they’ve said.  You can easily cross into creepy if you dive just a little too far back in their Instagram posts to find something you can bring up.

  • Imagine they are an old friend – When you’re feeling nervous it can really help to see the person as an old friend.  Imagine you just saw an old friend at a coffee shop.  What would you say to them?  How would you open that conversation?
  • Wear or carry something unusual – People have a natural curiosity and so when you carry something they’ve never seen before they will often begin the conversation with you!

Sometimes the reason we are unable to find the clients is because we fail to see what’s staring us right in the face – the world of people and connections around us.  Utilize, practice and perfect these communications techniques and I promise you’ll be a step ahead of the rest!

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