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Any business owner will tell you word of mouth is a powerful thing.

If I need someone to fix my roof, I don't want to go cold-calling in search of a roofer. I'm more likely to find someone who can get the job done by asking a friend or a colleague for a name. Referrals are worth their weight in gold.

Besides being good at what you do and impressing customers, is there a way to maximize the value of word of mouth, and turn your clients and partners into de facto salespeople?

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There is, and it comes down to how you tell your story.

Eclipse Automation is an award-winning producer of factory automation and special purpose machinery based in Cambridge, Ont. President Steve Mai will be the first to tell you its specialty - designing and building specialized equipment that helps manufacturers produce their products - is a highly niche industry. "From that point of view, we don't really do traditional PR," Mr. Mai says. "We're are our own kind of PR agency."

From the start Mr. Mai looked for opportunities to have the Eclipse Automation story told through non-promotional means, such as unbiased articles, or as part of award submissions. The idea was to sell the company's credibility. The efforts paid off: the company quickly grew to $1.5 million in sales with 20 employees in its first year, and it has grown substantially over the past seven years.

The strategy also helped Mr. Mai earn recognition from Ernst & Young as Entrepreneur of the Year.

Targeted storytelling has also helped Eclipse Automation weather the recession. The company used the time to boost the certifications necessary to appeal to a new client base, it started to dabble in social media, and it hired more staff to go out into the field to have conversations with people they had never spoken to before. The focus was on helping build a comfort level with new customers that went beyond assuring them of their expertise. Those contacts are then passing that story along to their peers, helping to boost the company's profile in new industries.

The lesson for business owners is an important one: Don't just sell your product or service, sell the story behind them. People appreciate credibility, and they're more likely to pass your name along the next time they're asked for a referral.

Special to the Globe and Mail

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Mia Wedgbury, president and co-founder of High Road Communications, operates Canada's largest public relations agency focused on technology and digital lifestyle. The company, which has been recognized as one of the best workplaces in Canada for two years running, has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and San Francisco. A seasoned PR expert with more than 18 years of experience, Ms. Wedgbury has directed global brand positioning programs, handled crisis communications, managed international product launches and developed PR strategy for companies across the entire tech and lifestyle spectrum. In 2006, she also helped the agency launch the High Road Connect practice – a social media, Web 2.0 and marketing services group – to help companies transcend conventional communications. Ms. Wedgbury's clients include Microsoft Canada, MSN, Canon Canada, Disney and LG Electronics.

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