The catalyst is right at your fingertips.

Photo credit: © Cooke.

The following was overhead between two women at the gym (and I was not hiding in their locker room, so just stop that line of thinking).

“Have a good weekend?”

The respondent enthusiastically recounted her time at a restaurant where she and a couple friends went for live music and seafood.

She described the entertainment (a mix of jazz and blues), menu options (a crab claw, oyster and beer place) and gave detailed directions to the restaurant. She encouraged her workout counterpart to go there, adding, “They serve lunch, too.”

“Wow, sounds like a good spot,” the first lady, who paused briefly, said. “You know,” she inserted between steps on the treadmill, “I have a group coming into town this weekend and was wondering where to take them. They would love that place. We’re going.”

Just like that, the restaurant picked up a table for eight.

Word-of-mouth marketing works. The trick is getting more mouths to spread the word.

You may think, “Yeah, we like getting referrals, too.” But that’s not where I’m going with this, because you feel it is happenstance, coincidence, “luck” and various other things having nothing to with intentional referral generation. Imagine what you get by “luck,” and then imagine if you put effort into referrals. Hold that thought.

Currently, 67 percent of purchases have a word-of-mouth endorsement, which is up dramatically over the last 36 months. There are three sizeable reasons:

1. Skepticism.Confidence in paid advertising claims has eroded amid corporate/executive scandal. This is why we began pushing the Preponderance of Proof theme for our clients in 2007. The reasons have only grown since then.

2. Trust of “transparency” endorsements.Friends and fellow buyers are seen as motive-free. The big multiplier that aided this increase is…

3. Social media/reviews.Yes, we’re talking about the one you half-hoped would not show up. Finally, social media has a worthy business component. I’m not fond of social media due to its brain-draining, time-consuming nature relative to far more lucrative returns elsewhere. Yet, it is an indisputable catalyst in gaining coveted trust and influence, multiplied instantly through an ever-expanding base.

Word-Of-Mouth Marketing Machine

All real testimonials and endorsements begin at one place - an excellent customer experience. As our female endorser proved in the previous example, the experience was worthy enough to remember and repeat.

The easiest way for a contractor to be remembered? Differentiation. Why?

You cannot earn endorsements or testimonials by being the same as everyone else. Thus, you must engineer small differences in order to be remembered and mentioned to others.

Start by going through your customer “touch” sequence (call, email, onsite procedure, follow-up, etc.). Then, make at least one thing different about each step that competitors don’t or won’t do.

We’ve all heard about shoe covers and logo tool mats as obvious differentiators, but shockingly most plumbers still haven’t taken the hint. It doesn’t matter so much what the thing is. What matters is it stands out. Here are a few examples.

  • Your CSRs’ greeting or “method.” We built a water heater sales program by having CSRs greet every caller, “Hi, this is Janice with ABC Plumbing. Can I get you into some hot water today?” This was something people remembered, repeated, questioned and occasionally chuckled at. Plus, it sold a lot of water heaters to people who’d never considered upgrading absent failure. It stood out. Make your greeting different.

  • Appointment window. Even something this mundane can become memorable. Most will say, “We’ll be there sometime this afternoon,” and the tech shows up whenever. We added a call/email/text that goes to the customer when the tech is en route: “Our arrival window is between 1:12 p.m. and 1:40 p.m.,” making it sound far more exact and cutting-edge. Customers remember and remark.

  • Gift at introduction. This is a big one. We’ve long supported handing new customers an “extra” newsletter upon meeting (no cost, but very impressive). You can do it with various goody bags, discount coupons, refrigerator magnets, jar openers, whatever. It’s not the “thing,” but that they’re different from others and earn endorsement from others.

  • Elevated service. A few options here:

    1. Two-price service. Figure every price two ways. Have one price with a maintenance agreement and one without to help the homeowner choose which saves him or her the most. Not only is this “different,” but it sells a ton of agreements. Remember, I’m a capitalist. Find a “feel-good marketer” somewhere else.

    2. “Plumb-Right” inspection service. At no charge and if time is available, ask, “Mrs. Homeowner, while I’m here, I can do a quick walk-through inspection of your other plumbing systems just to make any notes for you. This could save you a trip and diagnostic charge on your next call. Is that OK?” I think you can see the difference and value there.

    3. Drip-free guarantee. Offer the unexpected, such as, “Though most companies only offer a 30-day warranty, at ABC if your new [insert item] leaks or breaks in the next year, we’ll come out and repair it or replace it, free of charge.”

  • “Are We Worthy?” review generator. Since online reviews are becoming either a gold mine or a kiss of death, simply ask at the end of the service call, “Was our service today excellent enough to earn a positive online review?” If the answer is “yes,” hand the customer a review sheet with the “how-to,” URLs and even suggested comments. If “no,” you just dodged a bullet. Anything exceeding expectations counts toward referrals.

  • Ask for referrals. Train your techs to ask for referrals as they complete a service call. Make it a part of your regular communications. Ask on your website, in follow-up emails and in personal notes after a job is done.

  • The principle of customer retention is stay in touch. Keep those emails, cards and newsletters coming. Most customers leave and take all their referrals with them, not because of unfair pricing, but because you didn’t pay any attention to them.

    For Extra Credit

    If you see a customer’s name in the news for an award or recognition - not for something on the crime pages - send a congratulatory note. Send birthday cards, letters thanking people for their business and referrals. If you get referrals, send movie tickets, dinner coupons or flowers.

    Begin to think in terms of referrals and they will come. You will find a completely, or almost completely, free source of leads that close quicker without checking around as much.

    Why is this? You did what all service companies should do. You served well enough to be remembered and repeated.