Every once in a while a piece of research comes along that neatly fills in a missing piece of the professional services business development puzzle. The Hinge Research Institute, our independent industry research organization, has just released such a study.

It’s called Beyond Referrals: How Today’s Buyers Check You Out and it’s available as a free download.

Why This Study?

This research fills in an important gap in the professional services business development process. Previous studies summarized in the book Inside The Buyer’s Brain documented how potential clients go about identifying firms they may want to work with (asking friends and colleagues and online search were most frequent).

The research also documented the selection criteria used to make the choice (reputation is a biggie). But there was an important piece missing.

How do your potential clients check you and your firm out? How do they determine whether you will be a good fit for them? How important are references? What about social media?

Understanding how the evaluation process works will obviously allow you to develop a more effective business development strategy.

How Was The Study Done?

To answer these questions we surveyed over 1000 professional services buyers (1028 to be exact). They have purchased a full range of professional services, from accounting and legal to technology and management consulting.

What Did We Learn?

First we learned that almost all (over 99%) potential clients do check you out. And it’s not just a cursory look either. The average buyer uses over three separate strategies.

This suggests that no single approach to establishing your credibility is sufficient. To have maximum impact you need to have a presence wherever your buyer looks.

So where do they look? It should come as no surprise that your website is the big winner. Over 80% of potential clients will visit it to inform their decision on whether to work with you. So tell me again exactly why you are neglecting it?

And what about the references you provide as part of your proposal? As it turns out, they are the least likely strategy potential clients will use to evaluate you. Still important? Yes, but not nearly as central as many firms assume.

There are some surprises to those who are skeptical of the role of online marketing in professional services. Potential clients are actually slightly more likely to “Google you” (online search) then they are to ask a friend or colleague about you.

And what about social media? Still wondering if it is worth the effort? People are more likely to check you out using social media then they are to contact your references. The report also looks at what social media platforms they are most likely to use.

A New Landscape For Business Developers

There are still many business developers who believe that professional services are all about relationships, referrals and recommendations. And make no mistake; these are all still important aspects of a comprehensive approach to marketing and business development.

But they are no longer the whole story.

We now live in a world where search and social can have a profound effect on the growth and profitability of your firm. Previous research shows that firms generating half of their leads online grow much faster and are more profitable.

The current study adds an important new dimension to the discussion.

Suppose that you have invested all your effort into providing excellent client service and building your referral relationships. Seems like a solid strategy, right?

Then one of your contacts makes a referral.  The potential new client is well qualified and a perfect fit within your sweet spot. So far so good.

But then they check you out. They find a website that doesn’t reflect your understanding of their industry or your ability to solve their problem. Your last blog post was 3 months ago and you don’t show up when they search online. Social media? Little or no activity.

What do you think their impression of your firm will be? Yeah, it’s that bad. Good-bye referral.

And perhaps the worst part is you will never realize what happened. It’s the referral that never reached out to you.

Download The Study Here

The research report is available as a free download. Learn, share and prosper.

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