Why (Almost) Nothing Beats Word of Mouth Referrals

My mother was a phenomenal sales person (she’s long retired).  She won world-wide recognition as the top sales individual year after year for her incredible abilities. Her business primarily thrived on word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers. My husband brags his grandfather never advertised a day in his life and worked non-stop as a carpenter for more than sixty years. Both were very successful long before the internet, e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, smartphones, blogs.  It was in the day and age of cold calls, direct mail campaigns and pounding the pavement.

One thing my mother always told me, “The day a hand with a fist full of money comes through the telephone is the day you can stop meeting people in person to close a sale and just hang out on the phone.”

Well, it’s fair to say this has changed somewhat with online shopping, electronic payments, SKYPE, VLOs and all the other technological wonders of the 21st century that can actually allow interaction and payment without ever meeting.  However, the principles remain. Until a person can meaningfully connect with you, there is no sale online or off.  And, by extension, there is very little referral work.

I was reminded of this recently when I had an electrician and a painter at my home.  I had worked with both before, was pleased with the quality of their work and their pricing. One I’d met by referral through a builder; the other,  a father of my son’s Tee-Ball team mate who handed out business cards at the team pizza dinner. I didn’t shop around for this new project.  I knew I wanted to work with both of them, again, and that was their goal, too.  The electrician was very clear. “I know if you’re happy you are a client for life. I want you to be happy and I want to do all your electrical work.” It was a simple and unrehearsed and a stated mission.

What struck me was this. Both said they get all their work from word-of-mouth.  Neither advertises.  They only have business cards and cell phones.  They do not have a website, Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. They don’t go to electrician’s or painter’s conventions, retreats, marketing seminars. They don’t do educational marketing.  They leverage satisfied clients over and over and over, again.

So why did it strike me?  Not because I don’t know the fundamental truth I just wrote about.  But because this fundamental truth has gotten lost in all the social media platform hype.

Yes, I know lawyers and the profession in general are different in many aspects and some of their marketing efforts must be handled differently so as not to offend the advertising police. But they are also the same in just as many ways. Let’s not let the differences obscure the point of this post. The point of this post is this:

Nothing takes the place of happy clients who talk about your services.  Nothing.  Nothing will take the place of meaningful (and quite often) face-to-face, interaction.

This is what troubles many established lawyers when they try to tell new lawyers the best marketing for their business is word of mouth for a job well done.  Concentrate on your skills and your clients and the work will come.  While I would have to qualify this statement as being somewhat over simplistic, these past weeks I’ve started to see much I’m disliking about how the proponents of social media have seemed to cast a spell on lawyers. (Don’t get me wrong.  There is much benefit to be found personally and professionally in the effective use of social media as part of an overarching marketing program.) There is an almost maniacal fervor building and it’s disconcerting to say the least.

A recent BTI study came out reconfirming, again, the power of a personal or peer referral.

Summary of Findings

• A peer referral is the most direct route to hiring consideration. Fully 57% of corporate counsel will consider hiring a new attorney based on a single peer referral. BTI research shows that superior client service (and achieving a reputation for it) drives referrals.

• “Credentialing” activities are second only to peer referrals and scheduled in-person meetings in their effectiveness in moving lawyers into the hiring zone, and are nearly twice as effective as advertising. Corporate counsel find an attorney’s participation in these credentialing activities (defined within as being quoted by the media and other market authorities, speaking at small seminars, and authoring articles in trade publications) as credible indicators of an attorney’s potential to be a valuable advisor. The fact that a trusted third party has “screened” or “vetted” the attorney’s qualifications in each of the credentialing activities is, in large part, what makes them legitimate indicators of value to corporate counsel.

• “Credentialing” activities—unlike lower-scoring “awareness” activities—enjoy a “cumulative effect”: being quoted several times in the media, for instance, has a greater positive effect on corporate counsel than being quoted once. Further, credentialing activities generate content easily shared directly with corporate counsel to back up a referral or establish the credibility of lawyers on sales calls, and more broadly with the general market through today’s numerous information channels (social networks, attorney website biographies, etc.). This easy distribution and networking of credible information makes credentialing activities’ “cumulative effect” relatively easy to realize.

• BTI research showed that with the “cumulative effect,” an attorney quoted three times in the media can achieve nearly the same trust factor from the quotes as they would from a single peer referral.

• Appearances at large events, feature profile articles, advertising, and casual in-person meetings have the least effect on moving lawyers into the hiring zone. None of these awareness activities imply an endorsement from a third party. Further, the activities in this third group require great expense to repeat and do not have a comparable “cumulative effect.”

When we look at findings, however, one can easily draw other conclusions from what isn’t being said: ‘lower awareness activities’ such as those derived from social media interaction  places as third to the referral.  Yet it can clearly lead to greater ‘credentialing activities’. So, should you develop your social media presence?  Yes.  And this is your blogging activity, social interaction on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn.  Will this lead to the all important credentialing activity and then in-person connection?  If you have a goal in mind to do so, yes.  That’s the point.  Social media awareness activities are not the end game. It is part of the journey and several steps removed from being hired as a trusted advisor.

So, if someone tells you having a web presence and being on Twitter will bring you tons of new business alone, refer them to this blog post.

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6 comments on “Why (Almost) Nothing Beats Word of Mouth Referrals

  • Susan:

    I totally agree with your post. I recently had a word of mouth experience that has nothing to do with the law but is very telling about how the world works.

    I am on the board of directors for the First Tee of Denver, a local organization that works with over 3,000 Denver Public School kids. Our full time staff works hard on securing grants from local foundations and corporations to help fund our organization. One particular foundation was excited about what we do and how much we help Denver kids. But, they would never award us grant money.

    Over the past year I have been inviting friends to be on the board who have a deeper reach into the Denver community. Over this past weekend, one of the new board members went out with his wife and a few other couples for dinner and drinks. Over the course of the night my friend mentioned that he was on the board of the First Tee of Denver. One of the dinner guest said “Wow, that’s great! I’m on the board of this really big foundation and we would love to support your organization.” (Or something to that effect). It turned out that this person is on the board of that foundation that likes us but never gives us money and now because of their friendship we have a significant chance of being awarded grant money. Obviously, the foundation isn’t going to grant us money just because they like my friend. They are granting us money because they trust my friend and they are impressed with the work that we do.

    Some would say using connections is an unfair advantage. But that is how the world works. No matter how great our website looks (right now it’s kind of clunky), how great our presentations are or how many kids we help, without that inside connection we had no chance.

    So how do you mine those personal connections to get your foot in the door? Take your friends out for a beer and see where the connections lead. You never know.

  • Agreed,

    Nothing feels quite as good as hearing “X referred me to you because you’re good at what you do” and this always adds credibility.

  • I often think that the purpose of advertising is not to get people to purchase your services, but rather to begin a conversation. In this way, humorous commercials are often more successful than straight-forward ones because people talk around the water cooler about how funny the commercial was.

    Word of mouth is and will always be the most effective marketing tool–people trust other people’s opinions above advertisements almost 100% of the time–but it is possible to stimulate word of mouth through good marketing strategies. For lawyers, social media is a perfect way to start the conversation. Through social media, lawyers can really talk directly to their potential clients and demonstrate the value of their firm, and this will encourage them to talk to friends with legal problems about how much this lawyer helped them.

  • I agree-referrals are the best. I also get referrals from people who came to my animal law seminars and/or received mailings from the lawmakers I invite to speak. Animal law does not pay-it is a passion of mine to use education and legislative changes-but people come with service Animal Discr (ADA), Pet Trusts and/or animal charities I prefer for leaving money to (since I was a volunteer rescuer for many years and am involved helping animal rescue groups, which leads to doing estate planning, and even people who like me from what I said and/or read about me and feel my passion and care will transcend to their legal issue, albeit non-animal related (such as revising standard small business contracts, litigation, etc.). Also, since I DO care so much, and have proven myself, people don’t see these as marketing tools, just as someone who is trying to help underdogs, human and animals, and using her law degree to help. Frankly, I had no idea of this potential until I did my first seminar freshly admitted to practice.

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