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Life Health > Running Your Business

Think word-of-mouth marketing is enough? Think again

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I want you to think back to your high school or university psychology class. Do you remember learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? I always remember that the first level is physiological like: breathing, food, water, sleep, etc.

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?” Because I have a B.A. in sociology and a B.S. in referrals, I’ve created my own hierarchy. I hope you find these distinctions helpful so you take more effective action.

Cates heirarchy chart

Word of mouth

If you owned a restaurant, you would probably thrive with great word-of-mouth marketing. However, for most businesses, word-of-mouth marketing simply isn’t enough to keep the lights on, let alone grow at a nice pace. 

With that said, I sure hope that you are garnering some word of mouth that generates unsolicited business. If you aren’t, you may not be as referable as you think.


The word referral can actually encompass a pretty wide range of related activities. Heck, I named my business Referral Coach International. So for me, I use the word referral as a large concept under which these five terms reside. 

For the purpose of this hierarchy, I’m using the word referrals in the context that is often referred to as referred leads, meaning your referral source tells you “Give George a call and use my name. That should be all you need.”

Guess what? That’s usually NOT 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.

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 finding George’s company’s website and his LinkedIn profile. This research might help you leave a very well-informed and compelling message for this prospect.


Now we’re getting into more productive territory. We have the referral source reaching out to their friend or colleague in the spirit of recommending you and the valuable work you do. A recommendation comes with a sense of endorsement — that having a conversation with you is worth the investment of their 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 first three categories all have value and can lead to some results, the 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 5 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 brother-in-laws go.”


Advocacy is the highest level because your advocates usually create the best connections; introductions that actually turn into clients.

First, they truly advocate for your value and who you are as a person. They understand your value and want others to experience it. And they like 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.

Your action step

With these new distinctions, I hope your referral program will no longer allow you to settle for word of mouth or referred leads. Instead, you’ll up the quality of your introductions so you’ll serve more people, make more money and have more fun.

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