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What’s better than word of mouth and referrals?
Thought Leadership

What’s better than word of mouth and referrals?

Think back to your high school or university psychology class. Do you remember learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I believe the first level covers physiological needs such as air, water, food, shelter and … after that, my memory is fuzzy. I’m thinking beer, pizza and Monday Night Football – but that may be a little off.

You may be wondering, “What is the hierarchy related to referrals?” Since I have nothing better to do other than be a student of referrals (24/7), I’ve created my own hierarchy. I hope you find these distinctions helpful enough to use them to take more effective action.

Word of mouth

If you own a restaurant, you would probably thrive with great word of mouth. For most businesses, however, word-of-mouth marketing simply isn’t enough to keep the lights on, let alone grow at a nice pace. Word of mouth can be hit or miss when it comes to generating the right quantity and quality of new clients/customers.

With that said, I sure hope you are garnering some unsolicited word of mouth that generates new business. If you aren’t, then you may not be as referable as you need to be. Word of mouth is a barometer of the quality of your value.


The word “referral” can actually encompass a pretty wide range of related activities. For the purpose of this hierarchy, I’m using the word “referrals” in the context that is often referred to as “referred leads.” For example, your referral source tells you, “Give George a call and use my name. That should be all you need.”

Guess what? That’s NOT usually all you need. These days, it’s just so darn hard to reach people – dropping their friend’s name into your message (voice or email) simply doesn’t work as well as it used to.

When you call George, he probably won’t answer his phone and may be wondering, “Why did she give my name out to this guy?”

If this is all your referral source is willing to do, all is not completely lost. You can still do some warm research, where you learn as much as you can about your new prospect from your source, AND you can do some cold research on the internet, such as George’s company website and his LinkedIn profile. This research might help you leave a very well-informed and compelling voice message for this prospect.


Recommendations bring you into more productive territory. Now, you have the referral source reaching out to their friend or colleague in the spirit of recommending you and the valuable work that you do. A recommendation comes with a sense of endorsement – that having a conversation with you is worth their investment of time.

Almost all of your referral sources want to protect their relationships. In some cases, they’ll want to have a conversation with their friend or colleague before you take any action. And, sometimes, all they want to do is to give their friend or colleague a heads up that you’ll be reaching out to them.

This recommendation could come in the form of a text, email, phone call or even in-person conversation. “George, take Heather’s call. It will be worth hearing what she has to say. In fact, she has a set of questions that will really get you thinking.”


While the three categories above all have value and can lead to some results, more robust results start to come when you get introduced to your prospects.

Email introductions (“email handshakes”) can be very effective. “George, meet Heather. She’s been my financial advisor for over five years and I suspect you’ll find a lot of value in her council. Heather, meet George. As I mentioned, George is my brother-in-law, so I’ve known him for over 30 years. He’s basically a pretty nice guy – as far as brothers-in-law go .…”

Whenever you are speaking to prospects, clients, or centers of influence, use the word introductions. “Let’s discuss the most effective way for you to introduce me to George.”


The highest level of this hierarchy is advocates because they produce the best results – for two primary reasons.

First, advocates truly appreciate and praise both your value and who you are as a person. They’ve experienced your value and want others to do the same. They also like you and trust you, so they want to help you, in addition to helping their friends and colleagues. Second, they usually take a stake in having the introduction go through. After making the first connection, they’ll circle back to make sure you and their friend have connected.

While not all clients or customers will rise to the level of advocacy, many will and those are the relationships you really want to nurture.

In upcoming articles, I’ll show you how to create more advocates for your business.

Your action step

With these new distinctions, I hope you will no longer settle for only word of mouth or referred leads. Instead, I hope you’ll ask for quality introductions and turn more satisfied clients into true advocates.

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