(Originally published in PSMJ’s A/E Marketing Journal).
There are many ways for A/E firms to develop new business, but the most productive method is to crank up the referral machine with your existing clients. Referrals, whether solicited or unsolicited, are essentially testimonials on steroids. Testimonials are passive. Referrals are active.
There is no powerful marketing tool than a direct recommendation of your services from one colleague to another. Your customer’s recommendation is far more powerful than any sales pitch or marketing ploy. The following article will lay out three ways to earn these coveted and elusive business generators.
The Psychology Behind Referrals
A referral, at its core, is based on earning trust and confidence. The concept of being reprimanded for insufficient work and hearing crickets when a job is well done has become a cliché. It is; nonetheless, especially true in the professional services realm.
Referring your business puts your client in a vulnerable position. Whether they actively refer you or respond to a colleague’s need with a referral, they jeopardize their relationships, reputation, and even the bottom line of their organization. Your client realizes how much risk they are taking by dropping your name. The unspoken promise to their colleague is that you will treat them with respect and deliver results throughout the course of their business relationship.
So how can you earn overcome this psychological barriers and earn your client’s referrals?
1. Outperform to Earn the Referral
You can’t just do a good job to earn a referral. You’re being paid to do a good job. You need to go above and beyond to earn a referral. Meeting expectations doesn’t impress your client enough to crank up the referral machine. Exceeding them does.
So many businesses claim that they offer “top-notch service” these days that it’s become a hollow corporate promise. In reality, many of them fall short. Take an honest look at your project delivery. Are you really outperforming?
Start by asking these questions on every project. Did you deliver the project ahead of schedule? Did you beat the budget? Did you overcome one or more design hurdles? Did you dazzle them with frequent and clear communication? Did you solicit feedback during all phases of the project? If you can answer the majority with a yes, you’re probably outperforming.
2. Solicit Feedback
Why do so many design firms avoid soliciting client feedback? My hypothesis is that architects, engineers, and other designers are more project-focused than people-focused. Your inherent need to solve problems is so strong that the customer’s needs are sometimes unintentionally overshadowed. The problem is that projects can’t sign checks or refer your business. Shift your mindset to solving problems on behalf of the client and you will be well served.
Soliciting feedback at all stages of a project from the opportunity to the construction stage shows genuine concern for your client’s needs. This build a foundation of trust that will encourage your customer to refer your business. The client assumes that his or her experience on a project will be consistent with their colleague’s future experience with your firm. Develop a system to solicit, track, and implement changes to improve project delivery and you will begin to hear the referral machine humming.
A/E firms often focus on improving project management to improve internal factors such as increasing profitability and efficiency. A slight mindset change is required here, as well. Improving project management should also have an external focus with a focus on improving the customer experience.
3. Ask for the Referral
So many A/E firms are hesitant to ask for referrals or even testimonials. It feels uncomfortable asking a client to refer your business or even make a connection. You’re simply doing your job, after all. Being a glory hound is not your style, right? The problem is that if you wait for a referral to come, you will be waiting…and waiting…and waiting.
Asking for a referral requires boldness. If you outperform and solicit feedback as described above, you will feel empowered. It will require thick skin as well since you may be rejected. Soliciting referrals is much easier and more effective than making unreturned cold calls.
Commit to cranking up the referral machine today. Establish an active referral program with a set strategy and specific goals. You need an organized, measurable system that ensures that you solicit referrals from the right people at the right time. You will find that implementing that program and following these steps will eventually result in more unsolicited referrals as well. Like any machine, you need to add fuel to keep it running.
Have you used this approach to earn referrals? If not, what other methods have you found effective?