Be Nice: Matt Ward offers advice on gaining more word-of-mouth referrals.

When consultant Matt Ward asks business owners where most of their new business comes from, they almost always tell him that word-of-mouth referrals are the number one source. To the follow-up question: “How do you create more of those?” they usually draw a blank. “They kind of think you just sit back and wait for them, but in reality, you can create a predictable pattern of word-of-mouth referrals,” Ward says. “You have to focus on other people. It’s really a by-product of caring about other people.”

Ward will host a workshop on increasing word-of-mouth referrals for the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Friday, September 28, from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m. at the Nassau Club of Princeton. Tickets are $35, $25 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.

Of course, many business owners recognize the importance of treating their customers well and even trying to connect with them on a human level. However, Ward says, these efforts will often be done in a transparent attempt to curry favor or gin up new business. Think of the gift pen or T-shirt with the company’s logo emblazoned on it. “In business we seem to think that it’s OK to give gifts to other people with our name and branding on them,” he says. “That’s the gift we want them to have, not the gift they actually want … that’s advertising and marketing. It’s not generous anymore because it’s self-serving.” Ward recommends shifting the focus onto the other person, just like you would do if you were forming an actual friendship.

Ward says that business owners should devote some time to “reaching out” in order to build these relationships. “Ultimately, what happens is, small business owners feel overwhelmed and they don’t have enough time in the day, so a lot of these things get pushed aside.” But Ward says it actually doesn’t take very much time to show genuine care for others, or at least it takes little more time than perfunctory gestures would.

He recommends sending hand-written “thank you” cards instead of emails. “If you truly want to cut through the noise, you have to send a card.” And when you do, he says, don’t include a business card because that will turn a kind gesture into just another solicitation.

“I think a lot of small businesses don’t do it because they think it will take a lot of time, and it doesn’t,” Ward says. “It takes five minutes to write a card. That’s not a lot of time. They think it takes a long time because it takes more time to write the card than it does to write an e-mail.”

Ward says he connects with his business contacts on social media and takes a genuine interest in their lives. This allows him to send messages that are actually thoughtful.

This is easier for small business owners to do than those who run large enterprises. “Small businesses have their nimbleness and their ability to quickly pivot,” Ward says. “If they show up to a seminar and hear an idea, they can implement it the next day.”

But it’s not impossible for big businesses to do this. The online shoe retailer Zappos has created a company culture of good customer service and is constantly praised by customer reviews. “They empower their agents to make decisions on the phone, to care about people and to do things for the customers,” Ward says.

Today, Ward is a speaker and the author of “MORE … Word of Mouth Referrals, Lifelong Customers & Raving Fans.” Before that, he owned a web development company, where he relied heavily on word-of-mouth referrals from companies that weren’t his direct customers.

Ward has not had a typical business career. He grew up the youngest of three boys in northern Virginia in very poor circumstances. “My dad wasn’t in my life and my mom worked to raise three kids. That’s didn’t work out,” he says. “We had peanut butter and jelly and soup and stuff like that. We had a roof over our head, but if you could make the spaghetti stretch another day, you would make the spaghetti stretch another day.”

Ward attended the Milton Hershey School, a free boarding school in Pennsylvania for children from low-income families. He graduated in 1991 and tried to make a living at various jobs. One day in 2002, Ward sold his car on the streets of Washington, D.C,. for $50, then moved to Massachusetts for a fresh start. He started a web design company part time. The company was a success and eventually had eight employees and about $1 million in revenue. He sold it this year to his longest-tenured employee.

Ward says he sometimes looks back on a conversation he had with his grandfather, who was a judge in the Social Security Administration. His grandfather told him “In life, it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know.” Ward argued with him at the time, but now realizes that the old man was right. Though, he adds, who knows you may be even more important than the other way around.

“I became a connector,” Ward says. “I loved connecting people to other people who needed similar services.”

Ward says he had his epiphany about his approach to business many years ago, after he had tried conventional ways of getting word-of-mouth marketing for his business but found it slow going. After reading a business book called “Never Eat Alone,” he realized that his mistake was that he had been giving with the expectation of getting something in return. As soon as he started engaging with people on a more human level, Ward says, he started getting more of those referrals. He says his business spent nothing on advertising in the last four years he owned it, getting all of its business from his relationships with others.

It has had benefits beyond business, he says. “It makes you feel good,” he says. “It raises your own happiness, which makes you a better person and a better business person.”

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