Tell me if this sounds familiar…
You’re sitting in a coffee shop with a friend or colleague who utters the following phrase:
Can you recommend …
From there, it could be anything.
… a tutor for my son?
… a financial planner?
… a facilitator for our offsite meeting?
You close your eyes, give it some thought, and try to come up with the name of someone who might be a match.
Congratulations, you have just lived an example of word of mouth. One person with a problem asks another person for help in finding a solution.
It’s also where the vast majority of your business as an independent professional or small firm comes from.
So let’s talk about what’s going on and how to make this common scenario work in your favor.
Three things to keep in mind…
Thing #1. At this stage, it’s not about expertise.
When you ask me to recommend a tutor, or a financial planner, or a meeting facilitator, and while the implication, of course, is that you want somebody who is good, my response comes from a place of, “here is a person who seems to do what you are looking for.”
All the better if I happened to have hired one of these people before and have actual firsthand knowledge. But that’s frequently not the case, nor is it necessary.
At this point, my friend is just looking for possibilities in order to narrow the field. I am just throwing possibilities in their direction based on whoever comes to mind (or whomever, if you are looking for a tutor in English).
The actual vetting occurs later on. But if your name doesn’t come out of my mouth here, at step one, you never even enter the conversation.
Thing #2. Narrow is better.
My search for an answer to my friend’s question is by no means exhaustive. I’m just trying to think of somebody, anybody, who comes to mind.
So how do you become that somebody?
Answer: You narrow your focus – the more specific and narrow the better.
Why? Let me just stop right here and say that you are asking some pretty good questions today.
OK. Consider this example…
Imagine if I asked you, “Which movies were nominated for an Oscar in 2019?” You probably can’t think of a single one … even though you have heard of (and maybe watched) all of them.
That’s because your brain, despite the appealing and often-used metaphor, is not a database. You can’t Google it; there is way more in there than you have immediate access to by simply trying to remember.
But if I give you cues in the form of more detail – “Which 2019 movie starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper was nominated for an Oscar?” – now it’s easy. Bohemian Rhapsody, of course.
All the movie titles are in your brain, but you can’t retrieve most of them on demand. The same goes for the coffee shop situation.
If my friend asks for a recommendation of a financial planner, and that’s what you do, your name may appear in my head (along with about a hundred others).
But if my friend asks for a recommendation of a financial planner who specializes in working with single women – and you are Michelle Morris, a financial planner who specializes in working with single women – not only are you more likely to come to mind, but you are likely to be the only one who does.
Leveling the playing field is nice. Specialization tilts it decidedly in your direction.
Thing #3. Shiny positioning statements are a waste of time.
Maybe you’ve noticed: While all this coffee shop chatter is going on, there is one person who is never present … it’s the person who is about to be referred.
Regardless of how perfect a fit you might be for a given problem, you’re not in the room. At this point, you are entirely dependent on the friend being able to think of you in response to the problem at hand.
And I guarantee you they will never, ever, remember anything like this: “I mitigate cross-promulgation platform indiscrepancies using my trademarked 5-Star System for reducing cost up to 35%.”
It may impress the people in your networking group in the moment you say it, but it won’t survive the trip to the coffee shop.
Here’s what the friend can remember and share:
“I heard of a financial planner who works with single women.”
“I think my neighbor facilitates company offsites.”
“My brother hired a tutor for his daughter a few years ago. Maybe she can help your son.”
It’s not fancy. It’s not impressive. And it says absolutely nothing about how these people do what they do. But it sure is easy to remember, and that’s all that matters at this stage.
Here’s the bottom line.
The vast majority of the people with whom you interact every day are not potential buyers of your services. Not today. Not ever.
But… all of these people are capable of telling other people about you as they go through life asking and answering this very simple, very common, coffee shop question.
Your job, therefore, in making word of mouth work for you, is to describe your work using words – simple, narrow, specific, easy to remember words – that line up with the problems people commonly have.
See you at the Oscars.
- What is your favorite hot drink?
- Did you see Bohemian Rhapsody? Which one was Lady Gaga?
- What “Can you recommend…?” request brings your name to mind?
Share your answers below…