business advice | Jul 25, 2023 |
My clients seem happy, but they never give me referrals. What am I doing wrong?

Dear Sean,

I have been in business for more than five years, during which all projects have ended successfully, with delighted clients. Yet in that time, I have gotten very few referrals from clients. What am I doing wrong that past, repeat and current clients aren’t referring people to my firm? Is it really as simple as asking for a referral?

Missing Link

Dear Missing,

From the looks of it, your firm is successful in gaining clients. Your frustration is that you feel like it should be easier, with referrals from past, repeat and current clients. Yes, you can simply ask for referrals. However, you seem to be invested in the ultimate success of a project and the delight of your clients in what they get in the end—an approach I invite you to reconsider.

Perhaps, just perhaps, your journey to the top is not as linear and simple as you might hope. To solely rely on the result is confirmation bias at its worst. Only the most neurotic and negative among us want something as personal as our homes to turn out poorly, so the vast majority of clients are going to give you the benefit of the doubt because they want to love their homes and the investment they have made in them. While the end result is most certainly part of the story, it’s not an effective measurement of whether or not you did well—and it’s certainly not what a client will likely talk about with their friends and colleagues.

What clients will talk about is how they felt seen, heard and deeply understood by your firm throughout the project. The value is in making promises that matter to those you seek to serve—and keeping them. You’re making and keeping promises that are idiosyncratic to you and your firm, brick by brick, until you are done.

Here are a few questions worth asking yourself: If you were to receive a referral, what should the original client say about your firm that has nothing to do with the end result? What does it mean to you to be professional? How is it reflected in the DNA of your business? What is the one thing that matters—the thing that has to be there for every project? And where can I see that one thing in your business?

An example: You need effective decision-making for the project to go as planned. You work to create powerful presentations, for which you require effective (and permanent) decisions. You are not a shopper, and the process is anything but fluid. Wishy-washy clients are not for you. You guide with a firm grip or a strong hand on their back.

If referrals are what you seek, then you are going to have to get more comfortable alienating potential clients that are not for you. You simply cannot be a chameleon any longer, no matter how fleetingly fulfilling it might feel to see a client delighted at the end of a project. Your true clientele will resonate with many parts of your process, not simply the final result. Your firm can only be for those you seek to serve—those who give you permission to create true transformative change in their lives. Once you change your perspective and start to prioritize this dynamic, clients talking about you to others will be a matter of course.

As you have learned the hard way, pretty is its own demise. In the end, it is expected, and not especially remarkable. Beauty is a verb and has to be as you define it. Without question, beauty created throughout the project is what clients talk about most. Time to get to work on what it means for your firm to be iconic and unapologetic for its vision. From there, I am quite certain referrals will come.

Homepage image: ©Aleksandarfilip/Adobe Stock


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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