Word of mouth is a highly prized and sought-after commodity. Often misunderstood as the ticket to success, the truth is you can’t start a business with word of mouth. You need a lot of people talking before WOM reaches an effective tipping point, but once there, few things are better for building and maintaining a strong business. Careful cultivation of WOM—in your community and online—is well worth the effort.
Community word of mouth.
Word of mouth in your geographical service area is a product of combining active community-based marketing, effective services, and excellent customer service.
Active Community-Based Marketing. You have to get people talking first. Which means you have to get clients. In the beginning, clients lead to word of mouth, not the other way around. Building to that tipping point is particularly difficult for most dog service businesses because they don’t see a lot of volume. A private dog trainer or walker, for example, sees a very small number of clients per week. It’ll take a while to get to the tipping point at that rate. So active marketing is key to getting things underway.
Don’t throw money at your marketing unless you have a large budget. Instead, use content. Share your expertise by writing articles for local publications, giving lectures, writing a branded newsletter to distribute around town, leaving branded handouts in other dog businesses. Or give something to the community, like a dog park clean-up day or another organized dog event.
Effective Services. Your marketing will bring clients in, but if your services don’t solve their problems, they aren’t likely to refer friends and family to you. Spend some time thinking about what your clients really need. If you’re a trainer serving busy professionals and families, do your clients need someone to teach them how to train their dog, or someone to train their dog for them? If you’re a daycare, do your pick-up and drop-off hours match the reality of the local commute?
Excellent Customer Service. Think about the times you’ve given a referral or written a review. What motivated you to do it? Most often there is an emotional component to these decisions. We take the time or make the effort because the business has made us feel good in some way. It could be a rapport we felt with the service provider, or gratitude for something they did that seemed above and beyond the call of duty. We might have been impressed with their professionalism or efficiency. In short, when you take good care of people they’re more likely to do the same for you.
Online word of mouth.
We tend to think of word of mouth as a person-to-person phenomenon; something that happens between two people verbally or perhaps through email. But don’t overlook online WOM. More and more the work you put into building online networks will translate into community referrals. So get on and get active.
Blog. Don’t just blog on your own site. Guest blog for others and take the time to comment on other dog professionals’ blogs, too. Get your name out there, and be clear about where you train so that fellow professionals can send local clients your way when the opportunity presents itself.
Join Online Discussion Groups. If you don’t already belong to Yahoo or other discussion groups aimed at your profession, go looking and join up. There are countless groups to choose from—groups dedicated to discussing clicker training, groups for trading boarding advice, others for sharing business ideas for daycares, and on and on. Join up and then join the discussion. No lurking! Post often enough—a couple times a week—that fellow list members start to recognize your name and expertise.
Ask for Online Reviews. Don’t be shy. When a client tells you what a great job you’ve done or how grateful she is for your service, thank her and then ask if she’d be willing to write a review for whichever review sites are popular in your area—Yelp, Citysearch, etc. If your client is involved in social media you can also suggest she share her experience via Twitter or Facebook or a blog post, too.
Use Google Alerts. Set up Google alerts for your business. This is a free service that will let you know anytime your business is mentioned anywhere on the Internet. When someone says something about you, respond!
Get Links. A link from another website to yours is essentially an online endorsement; that site is telling its visitors that yours is worth visiting. Potential clients who find you through a trusted site are primed to respond favorably to what you have to offer. And links have the added advantage of increasing your page ranking, making it easier for others to find you. Read about strategies for collecting links in Got Website Links?, another article in this archive.
Use Social Media. Though not a replacement for active community marketing, social media can have its place. Using Twitter and Facebook won’t likely result in a steady stream of clients all by itself, but done well it can be part of building a successful online network. For more in-depth reading on social media for dog pros, read Social Media for Dog Pros, another article in this archive.