Word of mouth is a powerful force. It can help your business grow—or it can keep it from reaching its full potential. As a business owner, you need to understand exactly what word of mouth is doing for you.

An organization called TARP conducted research that found for every one customer that complains directly to a business, there are another 26 customers with a similar complaint. Unlike the first complainant, however, these 26 unhappy customers don’t go directly to the business in question. Instead, they share their negative feedback with an average of 16 other people—including family, friends, colleagues and other potential customers.

(1 + 26) = 27 customers who share their dissatisfaction with 16 other people = 432 negative brand conversations

Learn What Customers Really Think

For business owners, the math is eye-opening. You want to know what people are saying about you, but how do get past the tip of the iceberg and begin to track word of mouth efficiently and effectively?

Start by following conversations online. You aren’t vain if you Google yourself regularly—you’re showing business savvy. Seventy percent (70%) of all web searches are done through Google. Shouldn’t you know where Google is sending people when they search for you online? Set up Google Alerts for you and your business. Check customer review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List on a regular basis.

Survey your customers. Use an online tool like SurveyMonkey to check in with your customer base a few times a year. Keep questions short and to-the-point. According to Fred Reichheld, author of The Ultimate Question, the most revealing question that a business can ask is, “Would you recommend our business to a friend?” Asking this question helps you identify detractors and promoters—which can then be translated into a vital metric called the Net Promoter Score.

Follow up—and follow through. Follow up with customers who aren’t happy to find out exactly what isn’t working and what can be done better. Then make the necessary improvements to nip negativity in the bud. On the flip side, find out what makes people like your business and find ways to to reinforce positive points of interaction.

In the following video for Grange Insurance Association and its network of independent agents, I discuss these points and more.

The bottom line is, word of mouth is important. Why not take an active role in helping guide the conversation?