Word of Mouth and Your Business: Bridge the Gorge

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There's a lot of buzz about word of mouth. It's not surprising. Customers are exposed to thousands of marketing messages and trust each one less and less. Customers also are paralyzed by product choice: Search "Stapler" on Froogle.com and you'll find 25,000 results. Naturally, we're turning to each other to make wiser purchase decisions.

Marketing executives have noticed. CMO magazine reported that 43 percent of U.S. executives cite word of mouth as a top strategy for the coming year. But that doesn't mean they know what to do about it. And it doesn't mean that once they find something to do, it will stick.

Ironically, very few marketers actually are focused on word of mouth. Though the Word of Mouth Marketing Association has seen tremendous growth this year, the ideas and strategies of word of mouth have not seen the light of day across the entire marketing department.

How can something so important to a company's success fail to get the attention of multiple functions? The problem is in the nature of a corporation and the nature of the topic.

Picture two cliffs and a gorge between them. On one cliff is the ostensibly right-brain ambiguity of "word of mouth." We live this instinctively every day as customers, spending roughly 30 percent of our conversations spreading word of mouth and always seeking it out. On the other cliff is the left-brained, financially grounded operational process and systems that are the corporation. And we live on this cliff every day at work with our colleagues.

Any employee can "get" that word of mouth happens and that it affects business success. We all give it or get it as customers. But in our daily jobs, few people consciously focus on aspects in their business that can impact, influence or improve word of mouth. Yet everything we do at work impacts the quality of our products, services and systems ... which impacts word of mouth.

What's missing is a "bridge" between these two cliffs. An operational strategy for word of mouth sets forth a set of ever-present processes that employees (and their bosses) have to operate by and react to daily.

Occasional research insights are important to guide the corporate ship like a compass, but not enough to sustain its course. Have you ever sat through a comprehensive two-hour research presentation, rich with customer insight? Maybe attended a focus group or usability study? You may walk away inspired, perhaps with a few customer-centric action items. But in a week you're back to the day-to-day grind, focusing on internal measures, making decisions in functional silos and operating without "customer oxygen."

To put word of mouth on a conscious, operational level inside a business, the strategy needs a frequency and reach that we know works with external marketing. You develop a program that makes the word of mouth improvement ever-present, visible and participatory for your colleagues (not just you). Specifically, this is a program - not a project, not a campaign, not a promotion. It's not one presentation, a focus group, or any short-lived effort that is forgotten when everyone goes back to their day job.

For a corporate system to swallow a healthy dose of customer centricity, a program needs to be candy-coated with operational flavor: processes, metrics, owners, dates and accountability. It becomes a process that we can improve, which is something we can understand in our work lives. Your managers, colleagues and employees can feed on daily customer-centric tactics, and insights are part of their job and performance. While we're at it, let's reinforce the importance of word of mouth by putting customer-centric metrics at the top of that weekly executive dashboard.

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