The best way to market your firm? Get your clients to give referrals. That's the consensus of two important client surveys associated with our business, one by RainToday and the other by Hinge. The first found that 79% of clients identified referrals as an effective marketing tactic, the highest among 27 tactics considered. In the Hinge survey, referrals came in second after "building a reputation for getting results"—which undoubtedly is helped through referrals.
The Hinge report also added this interesting tidbit: While 68% of clients were willing to refer their A/E service providers, 80% had not because they hadn't been asked. So the obvious advice is to ask clients for referrals. But how? It's apparent that few A/E firms actively seek client referrals, so most of you must not know quite how to go about it or are uncomfortable in asking. Let me offer some suggestions:
Earn your clients' enthusiastic support. Like customers of any product or service, your clients are much more likely to recommend you if your work is superlative. Sixty-eight percent may be willing, but they don't seem to be offering referrals unsolicited. That suggests that they're less than delighted, and that's what the client interviews I've conducted indicate. You're less likely to distinguish your firm by technical superiority than through outstanding service, so focus there.
Simply ask. Hinge's survey implies that clients are looking to be asked, but I question whether a general request will produce results. The client understandably might wonder: Refer to whom? Regarding what? You should certainly ask the client if he or she knows someone who might be in need of your services, to whom the client would be willing to plug your firm. But in most cases, it's best to connect your client to a specific situation where a referral would be helpful. Make it easy for your client to get in touch with the other party, either through circumstances where the two will already be talking or at the same event, or by having the other party call your client.
Do some joint marketing. I recently shared the podium with one of my clients, speaking at a conference about their safety initiative. The event not only provided a forum for me to put some of my expertise on display, but to receive a public endorsement from my client. Speaking at conferences, doing seminars or webinars, or co-publishing articles with your clients can be a great way to get at least an implied recommendation in front of an audience. Plus your client gets some publicity for a successful project, creating a win-win opportunity for both parties.
Offer discounts for referrals. This is a common practice in other businesses that's worth your consideration. The discount, of course, is typically provided only if the referral leads to new work. But you can be as generous as you like in showing appreciation to clients for their recommendations. Given how valuable this can be in securing new clients, a modest discount is certainly a justifiable investment. You might also consider other forms of gifts or recognition.
Connect your clients with prospective clients. Many clients appreciate opportunities to learn from their peers, so hooking up your clients with prospects with similar projects or problems should be part of your sales strategy. Typically this will involve pointing to your client's success as worthy of the prospect's investigation. You set up a phone conversation, meeting, or site visit—and hope it creates an opportunity for your client to say something good about your firm. Or better still, back to point one, ask.
Seek online endorsements. This is commonly done through client comments on A/E firm websites. While this is obviously not as effective as a direct referral, it still has value. Social media sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook provide other opportunities for client endorsements, if you can get them. But one problem I've seen in asking clients to write their recommendations—the resulting narrative is often rather understated and not all that impressive, even from enthusiastic supporters. It's a writing issue. You might offer the client an assist by suggesting what you'd like them to say. I've even had clients ask me to draft their endorsements for them—the very best you can get!
Build your reputation in the marketplace. So far I've focused on client referrals, but others can provide valuable referrals as well. I've had several people who've never worked with me recommend me to others who became clients. These advocates learned about me through my conference presentations, articles, blog, or simply by word of mouth. That's the beauty of effective marketing; it has a multiplying effect where others are marketing for you.