Take Your Foot Out Of Your Word Of Mouth

For reasons that I frankly can’t remember, I volunteered to coach my son Evan’s basketball team this winter. It’s not a huge time commitment, however as someone whose involvement with organized basketball (i.e. referees, scoreboards, fans) came to a screeching halt midway through the Carter administration, I’ve found myself scrambling these last few weeks trying to pull things together.

(By the way, If you’ve got a simple offensive strategy you could send to me that would work well for 12 year old boys, with basketball skills ranging from excellent to “crustacean-like,” I’d appreciate it.)

One of my responsibilities as coach involves communicating with the parents. Yesterday, after a brief e-mail exchange regarding our upcoming game tomorrow, I received the following question from one of the moms, apparently in response to my e-mail signature:

“I just have to ask….what exactly does a Chief Penguin do? Sounds fresh, but I was wondering what your company does.”

First of all, you’ll be proud to know that I resisted the temptation to tell her that a Chief Penguin does whatever he wants.

It did get me thinking however. Because having a good answer to the “What does your company do?” question, is both important and challenging.

It’s important, because if you believe in the power of word-of-mouth as a way to grow your business, it’s in your best interest to take advantage of every opportunity that arises to spread the word. When somebody actually asks the question, you want to be ready.

It’s challenging however, because unless you give the other person something that can be both understood and remembered (more or less), they’ll never be able to carry your message to the next person.

For a long time, I thought I had this problem solved with my “elevator statement.” If you’re not familiar with this concept, it refers to a short, pithy summary of a person or business, so called because you’re supposed to be able to spit one of these out in the time it takes to ride in an elevator.

What I eventually decided however, was that my pat, highly polished statement was both hard to understand and too slick for the recipient to hold onto. Like wedding china, it was the kind of thing I would trot out of the cabinet whenever company came over, but as a practical matter, it wasn’t quite right for everyday use.

The thing is, most of the word-of-mouthy-ish opportunities that arise in my life — and, I’m willing to bet, in yours — are not formal ones. They happen at the supermarket, or at the movie theater, or when somebody’s mother asks, “What exactly does a Chief Penguin do?”

And so with that in mind, I’d like to encourage you to start 2006 off on your best word-of-mouth foot, by developing a more conversational description of your business. Here are some specific suggestions for doing that:

  1. Lose the jargon. Telling your next door neighbor that your company is “the leading provider of cross-promulgated supercalifragilized wolverines” may impress, but believe me, your message will die right there on your front lawn.
  1. Focus on what you do, not how you got there. In my (former) corporate life, it mattered how I got to my current position — history was tied to credibility. When I went off on my own however, I (slowly) realized that nobody cares. All they want to know is what you do and how it can help solve a problem (today).
  1. Keep it short. Last week I made the mistake of asking somebody what his company specialized in. After prefacing his answer with, “In a nutshell,” (a red flag if ever there was one), he spent the next 20 minutes answering my simple question. Even if I understood and remembered the gist of what he said (I didn’t), it was just too much for me to hold onto.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what I emailed back to that boy’s mother, here it is:

“I’m a marketing consultant, and I specialize in electronic newsletters for professional service companies (attorneys, financial planners, executive recruiters, etc.). You know how everybody wants more clients? What I do is help professionals create informative, non-salesy newsletters that they send to their house list of contacts. As a result, they stay top of mind, and when somebody has a need that they can fill, the phone rings.”

It’s not poetry, I admit, but her reply back to me of, “Got it,” was all I was looking for.

P.S. Thanks to my friends at the Society of Professional Consultants, from whom I learned the, “You know how. . . What I do. . . As a result. . .” format demonstrated above.

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