Marketing and sales consultant Rick Menendez estimates that the typical home improvement company gets 5% of its leads from referrals. Compare that to design/build remodelers, who may get up to half of their business—if not all of it—from past customers, and the difference is staggering. You may think that the discrepancy has to do with the comparatively limited line of products/projects installed by home improvement operations. Actually, according to marketing experts like Dennis Schaefer, there are two reasons: one is that home improvement companies often don’t know whether or not customers were pleased with the job; the other is that they have no process for soliciting recommendations. “For replacement guys it’s all about the transaction,” says marketing consultant and author Brian Kaskavalciyan. “They make leads to get a sale rather than secure a customer.”
Here’s what Schaefer, Kaskavalciyan, and other marketing experts say you can do to change that:
• Feel entitled. There’s no point in asking a customer for referrals if you don’t know whether or not they’re happy with the job. “Look in the mirror and ask: Am I really taking care of my clients?” Schaefer says. A quality audit or customer satisfaction survey is the first step in increasing referral leads. The questions and scores on that five to 10 question form—think: Did we show up on time? Did we meet your expectations? Would you recommend us?—not only keep you apprised of employee performance, but also give you a reason to re-contact customers.
• Ask away. But it’s not enough just to know that they’re happy. “The main reason companies don’t get referrals is that they don’t ask for them,” says Atlanta marketing expert John Stevens. That means doing more than just inserting a brochure in your leave-behind packet. Stevens suggests home improvement companies “build a place in the sales script for asking; then rehearse it.” That should be at the conclusion of the presentation, when clients have signed.
• Take charge. Who at your company is responsible for getting more referrals? Make it somebody’s job or create it. You may gawk at the idea of creating a full-time position, but an on-staff customer satisfaction person will likely generate enough referral business to justify the cost. That job involves someone functioning as the point person between the company and its customers. He or she follows up seeking recommendations and referrals. In the last few years, companies such as Newpro, in Woburn, Mass., and Woodbridge Home Exteriors have made staffing investments by hiring a customer care specialist or a customer concierge.
• Richly rewarded. Reward the referral with a gift card or a check to say thanks. Laws regulating referral rewards vary by state so check to ensure that your program complies with regulations. But be aware that the reward itself is not what prompts your customer to refer you. “Rewards are an excuse to ask,” says marketing expert Rick Menendez. “But customers don’t do it for the reward. They do it because they were asked.”
• Partner up. Employees don’t have to be the only source of referrals. Contracting or home service companies that you know, either as subcontractors or through local networks, can also help. Stevens suggests such companies include a referral flier that features a discount for those who use it, with all mailed invoices. Have the partnering company process the lead and pay them a fee.
• Don’t Stop Now. You finished the presentation, completed the job, collected the check, and asked for referrals. Don’t assume clients remember you. Remind them that you’re available via mailed or electronic newsletters. “Today there might not be anybody in their circle in immediate need of windows,” says Faerber, co-owner of Bee Window, in Indianapolis, but that could change. “With consistent communication, you stay at the top of their minds.” Bee Window, which generates about 15% of its business from referrals, sends clients a monthly e-newsletter. Kaskavalciyan suggests mentioning clients who've generated referrals in every issue. He’s also an advocate of mailing newsletters. “That way they have to touch it and, if you do it right, they’ll spend 20 or 30 seconds flipping through it." —Jim Cory is a contributing editor to REMODELING who is based in Philadelphia.