Your Professional Reputation – Three Distinct Levels of Word-of-Mouth

Originally posted April 30, 2009

Car Trouble

Car Trouble

According to an old saying there are only two things people want to know about you: what you stand for, and what you won’t stand for. This is the basis of reputation.

We intuitively understand that people’s actions are nearly always in accordance with their values. Someone who embraces fairness and treats other people honorably is likely to treat us honorably. Someone known to be dishonest has a higher likelihood of cheating us, as well.

And like our personal reputations, our companies have professional reputations, built on the experience customers have in dealing with our companies, along with their willingness to talk about those experiences.

Call it Word-of-Mouth

Another name for professional reputation is word-of-mouth, which comes in three variants. From least to most influential, they are:

1. Market Awareness – Do I recognize any of these names in this directory?

2. Recognition – Have I heard of anyone who has the ability to help me with my problem?

3. Customer Experience – Do I have knowledge of, or experience with someone who can help me to solve this problem?

Each successive level takes priority over the previous.

Market Awareness

At the awareness level, customers recognizing your company’s name trumps them never having heard of you. This is the weakest level of word-of-mouth. If you stay in business long enough, you’ll achieve some level of awareness. You’ll then have a slight advantage over some newer company that has yet to achieve any awareness at all. Why? With no other information to go on, shoppers will usually buy from the company they’ve heard of.

Professional Awareness is largely a function of repetition. A customer notes your name on the outfield sign at the ball park. Hears your jingle each morning on the radio. Sees your banner ad on the Internet. Catches your sponsorship of the six o’clock news. Recognizes your logo on the a coffee cup. If you’re part of the community, eventually people will bump into your name in the course of living their lives. The longer they’re aware of you without hearing specific negatives about you, the more generally positive this awareness becomes.

Small businesses like to advertise how long they’ve been in business, as if years of “experience” automatically translates to a benefit in the minds of shoppers. Unfortunately, shoppers have proven not to care. (Kind of ironic, isn’t it? All those years of doing business in the community have lead to awareness of your company – but the benefit is to you, not to them).


The next step up, recognition, beats out basic awareness because people now have attributes to attach to your name. “Here’s what people say” is the next best thing to first-hand knowledge – provided of course people aren’t saying uncomplimentary things.

The size of the community is a factor, too. The fewer people who make up the population, the more likely a shopper to run into someone with a story to tell about the business.  Recognition is a bigger factor in small communities than in large ones.

According to Wikipedia, one study found that a good reputation added 7.6% to the price businesses received for their goods. Some companies are finding that improving their reputations can actually boost stock prices.

Side note: the Internet has changed the nature of “community.” It simultaneously offers the potential of world wide reach while providing individual gossip to anyone who seeks it. And just as bricks and mortar stores have public relations companies to put a positive spin on community perception, their web-based brethren are now hiring reputation managers to keep track of on-line credibility.

Personal Experience

And finally, those people who have had actual dealings with the companies in question will have the most convincing word-of-mouth of all.

Shoppers who get what they expect will not give interaction with that business much thought. Word-of-mouth commentary happens when the customer’s actual experience differs from the expected. Delighted, wowed, or amazed customers spread positive word-of-mouth. Disappointed, disgruntled, or dissatisfied customers will spread negative.

A real life example

The new guy on the staff has just relocated here to take the job. This morning he heard a strange grinding sound as he drove to work. New guy is worried. The disparity between his lack of knowledge about possible causes, and his pressing need for such knowledge makes him feel vulnerable.

He asks his co-workers for credible information to help him choose a solution, or at least his next step.

Does anyone know anything about cars?” Note that he starts looking for information at the highest level of credibility – personal knowledge.

Not finding an expert among his co-workers, new guy begins to rely on word-of-mouth. Why? He’s trying to lower his risk level. A bad choice in a mechanic could have him paying for services he doesn’t need. Worse yet, he could choose someone who won’t be able to fix his problem (but will charge him for time invested anyway).

His next question: “Does anyone know a good mechanic?” addresses the most credible level of word-of-mouth – personal experience.

In the absence of such knowledge, he will quickly go down the probability scale, asking next what his co-workers have heard about mechanics in town.

Finally, he’ll go to his newspaper, or to the Yellow Pages and start studying the ads to see who appears to exhibit expertise in his specific grinding noise, or at least a company affiliated with a national chain.

Back to the beginning

There are three levels of word-of-mouth. Only two can be effected by your advertising. The third is strictly a function of the way you operate your business.

So what are your company’s values? What do you stand for? What won’t you stand for? Do you consistently project those values in each interaction with customers?

Is your business not growing because potential customers don’t know about you, or is it because they think they do?

Are you scaring the fish, as you fish for customers?

Your Guide,
Chuck McKay

Marketing consultant Chuck McKay

Chuck McKay

Your Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

Have questions about helping word-of-mouth to help build your professional reputation? Send them to [email protected]. Better yet, pick up the phone and call Chuck at 304-523-0163.

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Expectations Drive Word-of-Mouth

Customer Expectations

Customer Expectations

Your friend is raving about a movie his wife has dragged him to. He says he’s glad she insisted, because it turned out to be the best crime drama he’s seen in years.

He’s so enthusiastic that you decide to see it, too. But you find the film is only so-so. The plot is predictable. The acting flat. The dialog stilted in places.

Why did you and your friend have such differing reactions to this film? Probably because of your expectations.

Your friend, having been coerced into attending, began with negative expectations, and was surprised to find the film entertaining. You, on the other hand, were expecting “the best crime drama in years.” This film couldn’t live up to those expectations.

Customer service comes down to expectations

It’s the reason better than average service turns new customers into evangelists for your company. As this new, higher standard of service becomes their norm, they come to expect it. It’s the reason evangelists frequently become less vocal over time.

It’s also the reason you should never advertise the little extras. Use these to surprise and delight your customer. Otherwise, they aren’t special. They’re merely what she expected.

And on those off days when everything goes wrong, and a new shopper’s expectations of average service are shattered by your lacklustre performance, it’s the reason she becomes a vigilante. (Unfortunately, people who feel they’ve been wronged seem to hold grudges for a long time).

So here’s your reality:

Every day you do business with people for the first time. If they get what they expect, they won’t be commenting to anyone. It’s violation of expectations, for good or bad, that drive word of mouth.

Make your violations positive, extremely positive, when you’re fishing for customers.

Your Guide,
Chuck McKay

Marketing consultant Chuck McKayYour Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

Ready to bat around some ideas about exceeding your customers’ expectations? Call Chuck at 304-208-7654, or drop him a note at [email protected].

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