Six years ago this month, I bought my first home. I still remember how excited I was to find the “perfect” house, and I celebrated with a trip to a local shelter to adopt the “perfect” dog to share my home.
Within a short time, I realized that neither the house nor the dog were quite as “perfect” as I’d hoped. The house had electrical issues, lighting issues and a broken down fence. The dog had mailman issues, garbage man issues and a nasty habit of threatening to eat visiting friends and family.
Recognizing the need for professional help, I quickly hired a dog trainer and a contractor.
Both were one-person businesses, but that’s where the similarities ended.
The dog trainer was friendly, helpful and sympathetic to the financial constraints of a new homeowner. He communicated well. He offered flexible payment plans. He respected my physical space (important to me as a single woman). He was available days, nights, weekends, and the first Halloween, when I feared the parade of costumed tricker treaters might trigger a Cujo-like massacre. He even came to my first party to “supervise” the dog and make sure both the hors d’oevres and the guests remained safe. In short, he made me feel that my dog’s issues were a top priority for him.
The contractor was not so warm and fuzzy. He demanded money up front – cash only, please. He did not offer flexible payment plans. His listening skills were non-existent, which I quickly discovered when I came home to find someone had come and fenced 90% of my yard in my absence, leaving a gaping hole in the middle.
It took 11 months and the involvement of Consumer Affairs to get the contractor to complete the work, and I never did find out what happened, since he never once returned calls or responded to letters.
Not surprisingly, I have referred hundreds of people to Best Friends Dog Training in the ensuing years, while I have warned many others away from the contractor. And not surprisingly, the dog trainer – who gets business almost exclusively from referrals – has grown from a single-person firm to a 12-person operation with three facilities, while the contractor is still a struggling one-man band.
As consumers, we know how important referrals are. We rely on them when making our own hiring choices. Yet too often, as design professionals, we overlook this critical facet of business. Yet in a more challenging market, where consumers may be slower to commit to major projects with a company they don’t know, referrals are one of the fastest ways to seal the deal (see Marketing for Referrals).
If you’re looking to earn not just today’s job, but future referrals, consider the following:
- Be flexible. If someone truly wants your services, try to find a way to make it possible. While structure is critical in any business, overly rigid rules tell consumers that you’re more interested in following protocol than helping people.
- Build relationships with your clients. We’re all busy, and no one wants to spend all their time doing “freebies” for clients. But being nice is good for business; giving something extra, even when there’s no expectation of getting something in return, builds good will that comes back to you tenfold later on.
- Ask for the referral. People who have a good experience with your business will generally be thrilled to help you out by referring you, but they may not think of it if you don’t ask. Requesting that they refer you to friends dramatically increases your chance of getting referrals.
- Don’t make “value judgments” on clients by budget. If you decide to do the job, that client deserves your best, regardless of how much or how little they’re spending. You never know who’s connected with whom, or how someone’s situation might change. For example, six years ago, I was an ordinary person with a big dog and a small budget. Today, I test therapy dogs, which brings me in contact with hundreds of dog owners – and the VIP treatment I got when I was a “nobody” makes referring people to my dog trainer a no-brainer.