Using Collaboration to Enhance Your Referral Base

Are you getting used to the “New Normal” yet? It’s our current economic environment – where jobs are harder to find, selling them is even more difficult and getting them actually built is a very big challenge, as well.

But there’s a raft of other professional consultants who can help with all of this – from the obvious ones such as an architect or engineer, to the less evident, such as the people who do in-floor heating or perform energy audits, for example.

If you can figure out how to collaborate more with other professionals, or improve the way you work with others on your projects, you may find you’ll be able to add an extremely valuable network of referrers to your universe. This network can be just as important for your professional development as your past clients, who are other major, ongoing sources of work for you.

Consultants all have their own particular world and ways of doing things created around them, and it’s a good idea for you to clearly recognize some general characteristics of each profession and the work they do.



When thinking of allied professionals, the architect naturally comes to mind as being at the “top of the heap.” But this is rapidly changing, especially as you look within the residential remodeling arena.

Often an architect is only part of the picture, and you, as a design professional, may be bringing at least as much to the table. While an architect may have been trained to think and develop three-dimensional ideas, it may be you who has more strength in practical or proven materials.

In collaborating with a good architect, you may find you can both seamlessly bring your different skills to the project. Maybe she can draw really well, or has a very tight relationship with a particular city building department. Perhaps an architect can help you integrate the exterior of a remodel to the interior of the existing building, leaving you free to concentrate on the kitchen and bathrooms – all without threatening each other.

If you do end up working on a project with an architect, it’s probably a good idea to meet one-on-one and to clearly define each other’s roles up front. From the clients’ perspective, the last thing they want to see is discord with the people who are supposed to be organizing their work. Remember, too, that a successful collaboration with an architect on a project can often lead to more work down the road – with more customers coming from outside your own sphere of influence.

Likewise, the value of an engineer shouldn’t be underestimated, especially if your design calls for removing walls, adding space or bringing large amounts of additional light into a project. From a builder’s perspective, the engineer’s work is key to the project’s success, but don’t forget that from where you sit as a design professional, the cost ramifications of his work can be tremendous.

So, get with the engineer before your design layout progresses too far; again, just you and the engineer, communicating with one another away from the client. Give him some leeway with your design, and ask for fair amounts of input. If you do this, you can hopefully head off any nasty surprises ahead of time.

Other professionals may seem less important, but their expertise can still really assist you in your work. Take, for instance, a good lighting designer. She may be able to lend some valuable technical insight for the design. For instance, she can help determine what specific kind of lamp, bulb, power and position work best for a design. This could be an area where, while you may be knowledgeable, a lighting designer may be able to add something extra to the project because of the specialized expertise.

It’s important to remember that many of our projects are enjoyed in the evening, after a long, stressful day at the office. You want your client to love your design, and thoughtful lighting can not only make the space more enjoyable to use, but also help to show it off at its best.

A good landscape designer can be brought into your work, too; after all, how many of us have real familiarity with outdoor planting? Perhaps more importantly, do we really know how to lay out a garden or plan for how trees, shrubs and flowers will look over time?

Again, collaborating with a good landscape professional is not for every project, but many cities are beginning to require a plan of the outdoor environment on the bigger remodels. This can be especially valuable if you are designing outdoor kitchens or living spaces.

Other folks from the “decoration” area of our industry are coming into projects these days, too. We’re seeing many jobs here on the West Coast with colorist professionals, for example. They help coordinate the whole color selection process; not just paint, but stone, flooring and cabinet woods. They make sure all of the colors work well together.

We’ve seen owners bring in Feng Shui consultants who help orient building spaces or place furnishings. They, too, can improve the work – and that can ease your client’s peace of mind.



How about thinking of the plumber as a consultant? He may know more than anyone on the job about which shower valves are most reliable, or what type of 4" drain pipe is the quietest.

Likewise, don’t forget the electrician, who can show the slickest way of wiring a specialized lighting fixture.

A painter who has a good sense of color is invaluable, especially if he or she can assist with color sampling. All of this makes your projects look and work better. And it’s surprising how many painters get asked by owners if they can recommend a good designer.

These guys are often underestimated in the rush to get the project built once all the design is “done.” Use their expertise. It will make your projects turn out better. So pay attention if they’re telling you that you’re doing something marginal. If the cabinetmaker raises a framing or sheetrock flag about building an entertainment center flush with the surrounding walls and ceiling, listen!

Some trades just inherently lend themselves well to design input. For instance, HVAC, solar and radiant heating come to mind. Use their advice. Again, they will probably return the favor in the future by recommending you to others if you take their advice and work with them.

And yes, the builder can be a consultant, too – sometimes as important as any of the others. Keep that collaboration with your contractor or installer a close one. If he’s any good, he’ll keep problems at bay, and help you through client difficulties. He’ll send you more work, too, if you work with him on clear and frequent communication. You can cover for each other and produce a great job for your client – and more work will come!