How to Use Word of Mouth to Build Your Business

Reprinted with permission from Second Quarter 2014 ACHE Healthcare Consultants Forum Newsletter

Anthony L. Cirillo, FACHE
Fast Forward Strategic Planning & Marketing Consulting LLC
Huntersville, N.C.

My organization consults with healthcare providers in the area of patient experience and strategic marketing. My 15 minutes of fame in healthcare came when I suggested that hospitals create a role called a Chief Experience Officer to oversee patient experience efforts. The Cleveland Clinic ran with the idea.

I wrote that article as a marketing consultant interested in word of mouth marketing. My contention was simple. The experience of care IS the marketing. People talk about experiences. People who have experienced the care are your marketers. In turn front-line providers who provide the care are also marketers for the organization.

It is no different for consultants. Referrals are the lifeblood. No amount of fancy marketing or advertising can change one person speaking to another about our services. Yet word of mouth is misunderstood. People mistakenly think that word of mouth is about your online activities. It is not. Only seven percent of WOM happens online. One WOM is worth 600 advertising exposures.

Here is another way of looking at it. Consider this quote from Andy Sernovitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking: “In many cases, WOM isn’t actually ‘marketing’ at all. It’s great customer service that earns customer respect.”

Yet not every consumer experience carries the same value. Henry Ford once said that “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Cars would be indistinguishable in his eyes and serve strictly a functional value to get you from point A to B. However, we know that we all buy cars for emotional reasons. They make a statement about us. When we buy that Mercedes or Porsche, there is an experience associated with it—one that we gladly pay more for and yet it is still a car that gets you from one place to another.

As consultants we have a brand identity. I spoke at Congress this year about it. How you position, package and present yourself is important. You can get people talking about you. Beyond that there are strategies you can employ that can help spread word of mouth. Think of companies that do not advertise yet have huge brand awareness—Zappos, Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker, and Harley-Davidson. They utilize these strategies:

  1. Engage People
    People want access to information and sneak previews. It makes them feel privy and important. So if you are doing research, involve clients you would like to have on your short list to participate. Or share the results with people/companies that matter to you. People like to feel like an insider. Having key industry information, which they in turn can share with others, makes them look good. It is called creating social currency.
  2. Create Triggers
    Remember “Whassup”? It was a Budweiser commercial. The word “whassup” was what marketers call a trigger. It triggered a remembrance of the commercial and the brand associated with it. I counsel healthcare organizations about creating triggers, which in turn help them meet patients and prospective patients where they are at. No amount of advice in the physician’s office or dietitian’s office about fitness and diet will sink in unless triggers accompany it. I counsel clients to partner with supermarkets and gyms to create campaigns so that when people are grocery shopping, the message from their physician and/or dietitian will sink in. It happens where they are in a position to take action around the advice.Triggers can take many forms. I happen to be a professional singer and played in bands for years. As a professional speaker, I use song in my presentation. That is my trigger. That gives me one more point of remembrance for clients. They remember “Hey, that’s the guy who sings!” What trigger can you create to help clients and prospects remember you?
  3. Provide Practical Value
    A very highly paid sales consultant and professional speaker sent me this note unsolicited. “I tell everyone that I receive many newsletters, but yours is the one I most look forward to reading.”He sent that because my newsletter provides practical value to people. It is chock full of interesting articles and videos with very little in the way of marketing and sales. What practical value do you provide? People will talk about it.
  4. Give Something Away
    When Napster was an illegal music file sharing service, record sales in the industry went up four percent. When the record industry closed it down their sales in turn plummeted by five percent. They did not understand that Napster gave some of the music away, not all of it. If the public wanted more they would buy it from the record companies. I give away mini-marketing audits for clients, which whets their appetite for bigger things. What can you give away?
  5. Create Community
    Harley-Davidson’s road rallies create community by bringing brand enthusiasts together, moving out of the way and letting them interact. The good feeling had a halo effect for the company brand. Maybe you adopt a cause in the community that you own and rally healthcare providers around it. Create your own community of like-minded people. They remember who brought them together, and they talk about it.

Word of mouth is simple in concept but you must be diligent to implement strategies around it. While social media can amplify word of mouth, it does not replace these tried and true strategies that provide the most bang for the least buck. Psst. Pass it on.

Anthony L. Cirillo, FACHE, welcomes your comments and questions at