Positive word-of-mouth (WOM) has long been documented as a powerful tool for growth. Happy customers stake their reputation on recommending your product or service; that fact became the foundation for the Net Promoter System (NPS).

On the flip side, unhappy customers can spread negative word-of-mouth. The threat of negative WOM can be much more daunting and is difficult to control.

The good news is that unlike our B2C brethren, we B2B marketers can strategically manage word-of-mouth.

Especially because B2B is marked by ongoing relationships between customer and supplier, we have the opportunity to both increase positive WOM and convert detractors before they go public.

So here are three ways B2B marketers can use the strategic application of word-of-mouth to ensure that it skews positive for them.

1. Wake up the dead

Yes, zombies are real: They're your silent customers, and they may have given up on you. And although they may not be talking to you, that doesn't mean they're keeping quiet. They've got plenty of colleagues and friends who work in a similar field, who attend the same conferences, or who will find themselves in the line of fire during the next rant.

The thing is, silent accounts (or the "unhappy silent majority") are actually crying out for help, but they just don't see a point in being vocal with you. Perhaps because they have already "checked out" or don't see the value in providing feedback if there is a lack of trust you'll do anything with it.

To convey your commitment to using customer feedback, partner with your accounts/customer success team to help position and communicate that your company truly listens. With the resulting voice-of-the-customer input, you should be able to help the rest of the company find the optimal improvement opportunities, address these silent customers' needs, and save these accounts. Prove their opinions matter and are valued by your company; then, you will have an even stronger case study with customers willing to sing your praises!

So find out who these silent accounts are, and look for trends in use case, buyer persona, or other segmentation and use them when planning the next campaign or strategy document to target and catch more of the "best fit" prospects.

2. Keep all of your advocates close...

Account teams might have a handle on which customers are more vocal than others, but Marketing can use customer sentiment data to find all your advocates.

The tricky part to knowing a "customer" in B2B is really understanding who is part of the buying committee and who are all the end users who might be logging in to your product every day. But if you're only getting end-user's input, then you're missing out on key information that could help drive stronger relationships with the executives in the account.

The strongest case studies have a VP or senior sponsor highlighting your product, so be sure to cast a wide net when thinking about advocates. Everyone who makes up an account is a possible promoter at a tradeshow, a naysayer at a meetup event, or someone who is in between and is therefore a missed opportunity as someone who might speak up and enhance someone else's perception of you.

Whether via NPS or another method, by understanding which customers are happy and successful with your company's products and services, marketers gain a pool of advocates who are essentially raising their hand to promote you.

From there, you can activate those promoters and build a pipeline for positive reviews, case studies, and referrals for Sales. These interactions, when handled well, strengthen relationships to create loyalty and make it easier to increase engagement at the right times.

By having a bigger pool of promoters to choose from, you'll line up the right advocate for the right "ask" and eliminate the worry of burning out the same customers over and over.

3. And keep your detractors closer

OK, maybe not "closer"; but negative word-of-mouth is clearly a much bigger animal to corral since it's much harder to track and measure. But think of it this way: Even if you know of customers who are promoting you, but you forget to also pay attention to unhappy customers, you're advocate marketing work is essentially all for nothing. You might have an arsenal of great case studies, but they won't hold the same weight as a colleague unleashing his lack of enthusiasm (or worse) for your company at the next opportunity.

And that's the real issue: How can you possibly get ahead of every negative conversation that could sway someone's decision to do business with you? You can't. But you can take advantage of feedback data to learn what makes a detractor, determine characteristics of success, and use that to build customer-marketing campaigns that drive retention.

You can also identify trends where certain buyer personas or account types have misaligned expectations, and then course-correct future product messaging. Product marketers work with Sales—a major setter of expectations—to influence leads and conversions. You can stop a bad cycle of perpetual churn, whereby poor-fit customers are brought in for short-term gains.

Marketers can have a major effect on revenue growth by reducing the long-term costs of support and account teams that are continually fighting fires.

Bottom line: don't miss out on the opportunity to learn from detractors!

* * *

In the end, B2B buyers and customers are complex, so the strategic application of word-of-mouth is never going to be solved with a silver bullet. It's important to distinguish among all the contacts within an account to truly understand the pulse of sentiment. By creating a dialogue and partnering with other teams in the organization, B2B marketers have some unique tools they can use to get ahead of the WOM game.

More Resources on Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Word-of-Mouth: Why Chatter Matters for Your Brand [Infographic]

Give Them Something to Talk About: 'Talk Triggers' Authors Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

The 10 US Brands With the Most Positive Buzz

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image of Steve Bernstein

Steve Bernstein is the CEO of consultancy Waypoint Group and the creator of B2B voice-of-the-customer engine TopBox. He is the author of Failure Sucks! (More for Your Customers Than for You), a B2B guide to customer success.

LinkedIn: Steve Bernstein