From the Chairman: Referrals - What are people saying about you?

Mar 30, 2011

By Ed Friedrichs

In a fascinating recent book, Fred Reichheld asks The Ultimate Question (also the title of the book), “On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to refer __________ (fill in your firm’s name)?” His rating scale sets a high standard, indeed. If the person questioned answers 9 or 10, he or she is a loyalist, very likely to give you a positive recommendation. A 7 or 8 means you’re vulnerable. Your firm might receive a positive nod, but so might another firm. 1 through 6, take a deep breath— the answer will probably be, “Anyone but you.”

Have you checked your references lately? Do you know what people are saying about you? A piece of advice: It’s far less expensive to recapture a bad reference than it is to create a new positive one. And that bad reference will keep haunting you no matter how many wonderful, positive ones you’ve nurtured. So, it’s in your best interest to be asking The Ultimate Question on a frequent basis. But it’s not just client referrals you need to worry about in the building professions. We have a large number of stakeholders in the work we do and many of them are out there talking to your prospective clients— sometimes before you’ve even identified them. So, it’s very much in your best interest to cultivate a strong referral preference among every one of the people who can be influencers on the decision to hire you. Your goal is that anyone who is asked about architects mentions your name first because they know you care about their issues. Make a list of anyone who might be one of these influencers and take him or her to lunch, for a cup of coffee or for a beer after work. Get to know them personally. Understand what irritates them about other architects or engineers (or about you and your firm). Share what you learn with others in your office and adjust your work practices and attitudes accordingly. Doing this on an ongoing basis will make you a better professional. Here are some ideas about who these people might be: 1. Contractor: Meet with a project manager and find out what you can do to make their life better. Is it to be more responsive? To meet with them personally when you’re issuing a new set of drawings or a change? How about a field superintendent? This is where the rubber meets the road. They know what information needs to be on drawings and what is extraneous. The person who negotiates with subcontractors and buys out your project is a key influencer about your firm within the contractor’s office. Are your intentions clear in your documents? Are there formats that help them package your work better for subcontractor bidding? You see, your reputation is built a piece at a time. The owner of the construction firm may be the one a client asks about you, but he gets his information from his people, no matter how many rounds of golf you’ve shared. 2. Subcontractors: The person who prices your project for the general contractor, the person who details your work in shop drawings, and the person who installs it in the field are all influencers on your reputation. And remember, these folks are out in the market looking for their next assignment. They may have called on your prospective client before you even knew about the job. 3. Manufacturers and suppliers: Treat the sales people who visit your office with the greatest respect. Deal with them as “partners” in the work you do. When your project is being built, they can make it go well ... or not, based on the way you’ve dealt with them. Always return their phone calls, even if you’re too busy. If you set a meeting with them, give them your full attention— don’t take phone calls or scan your e-mail while they’re giving you their “pitch,” and don’t blow them off if you’ve set a meeting and something else comes up. Don’t make unreasonable demands for samples or mock-ups; anticipate your needs and give them as much lead-time as possible. Remember, they probably have more “feet on the streets” than you do and often sniff out new prospective work before you. If the client they call on asks about architects, whose name do you want them to pass along? I’ve gotten some wonderful referrals over the years from manufacturers and suppliers because I truly did work with them as partners. 4. Engineering consultants: As an architect, work with them as partners. Meet with each engineer you know and find out how they would like to work with you in a way that will give you the best and most creative value. That’s what makes their work fun. They may also know about upcoming work before you hear about it. 5. Government officials: Wouldn’t have thought of this one, would you? But I got one of the most important referrals in my career from a city manager asked by a client about a firm that would work well with the city and the community on a particularly sensitive project. He quizzed his staff and our name came up at the top of their list. Meet with the plan checker long before you submit your documents. Get their advice on issues you have questions about. Treat them as partners with a mutual interest in public safety. It’ll also speed your plans through plan check. 6. Lenders: Your new prospective client will need money and may have the same lender that funded your previous project. Trust me, they will ask about your firm. Throughout every project you do, take the time to understand the priorities and concerns of the financially responsible party. Make sure you’ve addressed them. Whenever you have a project presentation, touch base with this person and review with them how your solution has addressed their issues. Are you getting the idea?

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.