The pitfalls of good word of mouth

August 1, 2013


Good word of mouth is the engine that keeps many businesses going and growing, but it can also be the very thing that keeps you from building the business you dream of. This flip side to good word of mouth was something Todd, a photographer friend of mine, had to contend with.

I got to know Todd a few years ago after seeing him at various weddings when he became the photographer of choice among my friends. At one of those events I told Todd that a client of mine was getting married the following summer and was looking for a photographer. When I offered to introduce him to her, I was surprised to sense a little hesitation before he gratefully accepted the gesture.

A few days later, Todd called to book some coaching time with me. When we got together he said there was a reason he’d hesitated the other night. To explain, he filled me in on his background.

Falling in love

Todd fell in love with photography as a teenager, particularly celebrity and fashion photography. He dreamed of being the next Annie Leibovitz or Mick Rock. After majoring in photography, he set off to start his career. He landed a few paying gigs with some magazines, but went through long stretches where money wasn’t coming in. To pay the bills he started doing his friends’ weddings. As he said it, “It’s ten years later and I’m a wedding photographer.”

“And you’re not happy with that?”

“I love my work,” Todd said. “But I feel like I’ve given up on my dream.”

“Have you given up?”

“No.”

A dream in jeopardy

When I asked him what he was doing to pursue his dream he said he kept in touch with a few editors and occasionally picked up gigs, but the wedding work often got in the way. Several times he had to turn down good opportunities because he was booked for weddings and couldn’t get out of them. Plus, he had a few people in his network who had connections that could help him, but they seemed to typecast him as the wedding photographer.

“I’ve put the message out there about what I want. My website positions me as the kind of photographer I want to be, but I can’t seem to break out of the wedding business.”

Beyond survival

“First of all,” I said, “congratulations on building a successful business. But, yes, I feel your pain—you’ve built a business, but it’s not the one you want. That’s actually really common. When most people start a business, they focus on survival. They do whatever they can to make money. Sometimes one or two of their services start to get traction. Clients start referring other people. Everyone wants good word of mouth, but it can take you places you don’t want to go.”

“So, what can I do?”

“What would you do if you weren’t involved in the wedding business? How would you go about building the business you want?”

Opening up

For the next while Todd talked about all the networking he would need to do—the galas, shows and openings he would have to attend. He’d also have to find opportunities to showcase his work. A lot of this would involve travelling.

He seemed to have a solid understanding of what to do, which led me to ask him why he accepted my offer to introduce him to another wedding client.

That question got us talking for a while and we ended up having a really open conversation that flushed out several issues. For one, Todd felt a sense of obligation to his clients and the people in his network who sent him business. For another, he still carried the memories of the times he couldn’t make money. So saying no to money on the table was hard. He also admitted he worried that he might not make it as a portrait photographer. Maybe he didn’t have as much talent as he believed, or maybe he might never find the recognition he sought.

Exposed

Todd said he felt pretty vulnerable bringing his worries and fears to light.

“You’re feeling this way,” I said, “because you’re well past the survival stage. Worry about paying the bills has been replaced by worrying about fulfillment. It’s important to recognize you’ve moved into this phase and to be conscious and proactive about defining your business—rather than letting it be defined by the word of mouth that’s circulating. So I think the question you have to answer now is do you really want to pursue fashion and celebrity photography?”

“I know I’ll regret my life if I don’t try, but if I’m being honest it’s going to be hard to say no the next time someone calls about a wedding.”

Worries

“The way things are now, yes, but if you had a transition plan that minimizes your risks, you should be able to appease the worries that are currently holding you back.”

Todd spent the next couple of weeks developing a plan that included taking on another photographer to handle the wedding side. Todd would have to invest his time finding someone and training them to deliver the level of service his clients expected, but eventually he would be able to step back, play a management role and focus on building the portrait side.

I thought it was great that Todd saw his wedding business as an asset he could use to spring into the next phase, rather than as something keeping him down.

The defining call

When I caught up with Todd a year later, after he had hired and trained his associate, he told me about a recent call he’d taken. The caller was somebody a former client had referred to him who badly wanted Todd for her wedding.

“It wasn’t easy selling her on my associate,” Todd said, “but she agreed in the end.” As Todd explained, he felt incredibly empowered by his response. It was a defining moment for him. “I really felt like that call was about me saying to the world, ‘I’m no longer the wedding photographer, I’m the portrait photographer.’”

Todd continued to delegate the wedding work to his associate and focus his freed-up time on trying to get portrait work. The transition wasn’t easy. There were times when he felt like giving up, but he stuck with his plan and when I checked in with him a few months ago he told me he’d just returned from a shoot in New York for a top sports magazine where the subject was a famous baseball player. It was exactly the kind of experience he had always dreamed of having—and one that would never have been possible if he had continued to let word of mouth define him.

The big takeaway: word of mouth is a free and powerful marketing engine spawned by doing amazing work for your clients, but as Todd discovered it can sometimes trap your business. People get to know you for your expertise in certain areas and the world pigeonholes you. But if you’d prefer to define your business differently, you’ll have to move from a passive mode where you’re just taking the opportunities that come to you to an active mode where you’re creating the opportunities you really want. When I last spoke with Todd he was thrilled to tell me he had started to see a new kind of word of mouth spread about him—this time as someone to watch in portrait photography. Some parting words: if Todd had launched his business with a sound plan to succeed as a portrait artist and executed that plan from the earliest days he wouldn’t have had to wait over ten years to redirect his business. Keep that in mind if you’ve recently started your business—the earlier you flesh out your business plan, the better.

If you want to share your own experiences with how word of mouth has affected your business, please let us know in the comments section below, or shoot me an email at donald (@) freshbooks (dot) com.

Author’s note: this post is based on a business owner I have coached. I’ve changed his name and some telling details.


about the author

Former Staff Contributor Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and head of content at ClearFit.