You may be thinking: Hey, I’m not asking anybody to refer me, so word-of-mouth marketing is not something I need to concern myself with. I mean, if I provide good products or services, and if my customer service is up to par, I’ll naturally get some customers by word of mouth. Why bother with plans and strategies? Why spend all that extra effort to get people to refer me? I’m getting word-of-mouth free, every day, and it’s not costing me any time or effort!

Well, here’s the thing: Yes, you’re getting word-of-mouth every day. It just may not be the kind you’re thinking of—the good kind. The message you’re sending out may not be clear. It may be too vague. It may even be—surprise!—negative.

Negative? You may be saying. But I have plenty of satisfied customers!

Yes, you probably have lots of satisfied customers, but they’re not the ones doing the most talking. You may have ten, twenty…or even a hundred satisfied customers for every one customer who leaves your shop less than happy. But who talks loudest and longest? It’s that demanding, unreasonable customer who thinks you’re a lousy tailor because you wouldn’t take care of her snarling, yapping cairn terrier while she went next door to the bakery (“Don’t go to tailor – he was so rude to me!”). Or the customer who came to your place of business one afternoon on the one day of the entire year you had to close early for an emergency (“That store? Why, it’s never open!”).

Negative word-of-mouth has legs. A study conducted in Texas revealed that the average dissatisfied customer gripes to eleven people about his experience, and these eleven in turn tell five others apiece. That’s sixty-six—or more—horror stories about one unhappy trip to your store! Ask yourself: does your average happy customer make sure that sixty-six other people hear about your great service? Of course not. Would business be easier if they did? Of course—but they don’t.

Also, passing the gripe by that single dissatisfied customer from the first eleven to the next fifty-five takes some time, and that means that the negative, word-of-mouth feedback is “out there” a lot longer!

What’s the lesson here? Good customer service is important because it reduces negative word-of-mouth. But by itself, good customer service won’t generate enough positive word-of-mouth to build your business. So it is up to you, the business owner, to ensure that your product or service has much more positive word-of-mouth coming from customers than it does negative, in order to counteract the highly-probable exponential effects of a single negative experience by a single client.

Even if you discount the occasional disgruntled ex-customer, your word-of-mouth may be so vague as to be useless: “Good tailor, eh? What does he do besides alterations? Does he do reweaving? You don’t know?” Or it may be misleading: “Well, he has a full lineup of men’s clothing, but I don’t know whether he does custom tailoring or alterations. It may all be ready-to-wear.”

Positive word-of-mouth that’s inaccurate or aimed at the wrong target market may be as detrimental to your business as negative word-of-mouth. Suppose somebody gets the mistaken idea that you’re in the trucking business when you’re actually selling trucks? The aggravation of trying to get business done while straightening out an honest misunderstanding may leave enough of a sour taste in the prospect’s mouth to cost you future business—and referrals. The same is true if your business focus is on high quality but your source promotes you as a low-cost provider. It’s important that your marketing message be conveyed accurately and that your prospect knows what to expect. It’s a lot easier to exceed the customer’s expectations if those expectations are realistic.

So, how do you keep up with the demands of running your business and get make sure the word gets out – a lot – about how wonderful your business is? You can begin on a very small scale…starting with your family and friends. It is amazing what a good word by a spouse, sibling, or parent can do for your business in the right place and time. Branch out to your friends or members of organizations in which you belong. With family and friends, the key is making sure that they have solid and up-to-date information about your company, and as thorough an understanding as possible about what you do. And don’t forget the vendors who provide products or services to your business – remember that IT consultant who helps with your server every other week will visit (and certainly talk with) many clients in between!

Remember: word-of-mouth is always working…it just may be working against you. If you don’t have a strategic plan, then you’re not in control of what’s being said about you. And if you don’t have a way to measure the results of your word-of-mouth marketing, then you have no idea if it’s really working.