From the Designer:
How Referrals Shape Your Business


Let me tell you a little secret. Just between us, I’m lazy. That doesn’t mean I don’t work hard, I do. Its just, I have this idea in my head that I’m a “bad” salesman so I resist things like cold calls and promoting my business. Maybe it’s my “aww, shucks” Ohio upbringing or my father’s call to be humble in the back of my mind.

Whatever it is, thank god for referrals! Without them, my branding & packaging design agency wouldn’t be entering our 19th year. But this isn’t a story about how to get referrals or networking or any of that bollocks. See, I was rehashing the same stuff we’ve always heard about that stuff when, half asleep, I had an epiphany.

I looked back on the last several years and I was surprised to see that much of our best work came from referrals. How did that happen? What insights can I share? Did it ever go wrong? Read on.

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Be afraid. Be very afraid.

No big surprise here, the work was good because I was terrified of looking bad to the person that referred us! I can’t help but take things personally (I’m working on it) so that’s how I treat referrals too. We treat the client’s business as our own. Of course I want the client to be happy but equally or more for the person that referred us!

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Go forth & multiply.

When everyone’s happy, more opportunities flow—and my network grows. It’s obvious but it really works. I can’t practice my gratitude enough here but I decided long ago to stop pitching clients with massive budgets and to focus on my own network, looking for clients that would hire us based on our thinking and work.

To me, pitching against 3, 5, 10 other agencies for a client’s business is, frankly, bad business. It’s hard for small agencies to do—working on spec or for free, developing ideas and designs that can easily be stolen—and never understanding why your company was or wasn’t chosen.

Referrals is the life hack that works for me: Relying on a strong network of friends, former colleagues and networking contacts serve as my de-facto sales force. And that structure is always in flux. You never know who you’re going to meet in an airplane, party or elevator. I just try not to be cheesy or sales-y…nobody likes that guy.

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Performance issues.

Sometimes it doesn’t always work. We’ve had referrals that turned into failures. Here’s one that tanked—and how I rescued it from the ashes.

A former colleague who later started a PR firm referred us to a well-established, international non-profit. We designed a gorgeous stainless steel structural kiosk in the shape of a double helix they could use for events.

The client loved it, the PR folks loved it, the design was cool—and then the manufacturer dropped the ball. For months. Getting the thing fabricated was a nightmare and we missed a key delivery date. The client was not happy. The PR firm was pissed. And I felt like a jerk.

But I sucked it up and told them I’d do whatever it took to make them satisfied. I hand delivered an expensive retail iPad display they could use. We designed a whole new set of signs. We sourced an off-the-shelf display too. Anything to salvage the relationship. When the main display finally arrived, it was slightly damaged so we got replacement parts made. Eventually we passed the test and the client was satisfied.

The experience taught me a great lesson in trying to over-deliver. And to choose vendors more carefully. Months later, I had drinks with the original referrer and completed the repair of the relationship—one that lasts to this day.

Written by Brick & Wonder member, Daniel Stark, Principal at Stark Design