The Phone Has Been Ringing Off the Hook! What’s Worked and What Hasn’t
A year ago I started working with a small design-build company to help it grow to a medium-sized business. Let's call the company Acme Design-Build. Our intentions were to grow a business using spiritual and energetic principles of trust, kindness, honesty, and play. We estimated that it would take 1-1.5 years to start growing consistently, and we’re now in the midst of an exciting growth spurt. Some things in our strategy have worked and some haven’t! I'm sharing them all with you, in case they're helpful for your own business:
Calling former clients
The first thing I did was call a list of former clients to hear about what their experiences were like in working with Acme. This served two purposes: First, it gave the clients a chance to be honest about their experience with a neutral third party, helping them feel acknowledged and cared about. And second, it gave us direct feedback on what kinds of stories people were telling their friends about us, which we then used to refine our services and marketing strategy. We also used some of their key words in our website copy, making it more likely that potential clients would recognize themselves when they read our story.
Prioritizing word-of-mouth marketing
We decided to focus on word-of-mouth marketing, partly because we were noticing how many clients were coming through referrals and partly because I’d read a few books on how powerful and organic it can be as a marketing tool. This meant that we needed to improve our services so that clients would be excited to share with their friends what a wonderful experience they had working with us. For example, the word ‘expensive’ came up several times in my interview with former clients. We wanted to change this story to ‘Acme is a great value’, so we set about changing the way we communicate at different stages of the process to convey to clients that they were getting good deals and we were being trustworthy stewards of their resources. We're also constantly looking out for 'talkable stories' to distinguish our work. (See the book Fizz for more on this.)
Improving systems and procedures
One of the best ways to generate great word-of-mouth stories is to offer great services. We’ve put a lot of focus on making our services more efficient and responsive to our clients’ needs.
Writing helpful articles for the website
The design-build process can be opaque and confusing for people. One of the ways we sought to distinguish ourselves was by producing content that would help guide people through the process and answer their questions, thereby helping them feel more empowered and demonstrating that we're trustworthy and knowledgeable guides. We send these articles to potential clients as questions come up, and they're posted on our website in a 'Resource Center' section. (See the books Building a Storybrand and They Ask,You Answer for more on being a guide to your clients.)
Improving website wording and navigation
We refined the wording on the website to better communicate with potential clients. We incorporated words and feedback from former clients, and spent some time researching the websites and marketing materials of top companies in the industry to gather insights. High-quality photos are also crucial in this industry, and we re-designed the gallery section to show them off.
Improving social media posts
We wanted to make our social media posts feel like gifts to people: everything we posted would be helpful, inspiring, or educational about the design-build process. We were so excited when one client specifically mentioned how much he'd enjoyed our Instagram stories.
I read through the local Star Tribune section on homes, looked at the types of stories they write, and contacted one of the journalists to pitch a story on one of our projects. It wasn't a difficult pitch, because it was a fascinating project that was in line with the type of stories they write. We ended up with a huge spread on the cover section, and got some great leads from that article.
Holding the vision
Sometimes my job was just to hold the vision of a growing company. At times the team would get discouraged or bogged down in details, and it would be my job to continue to hold the vision of what we’d discussed. It’s crucial to have that kind of faith in your business journey, even when things on the surface seem confusing.
Rapport is crucial in growing a business. Someone might be able to see what needs to happen in order for a business to grow, but if the rest of the team isn’t on board, there’s nowhere to go. With the owner of Acme, we had a strong rapport from the beginning, and it was easy to generate and implement ideas on business growth. We also had a lot of fun hiring people who resonated with us.
Staying neutral toward whether someone becomes a client or not
We needed to become completely neutral as to whether a client ends up signing with us or not. We’ve all experienced what it's like to feel needy and desperate to get a job or land a client. The problem is that the energy of neediness is off-putting, and you can end up working against yourself. In becoming neutral, we’ve become more trustworthy as a guide because our desire to help is seen as genuine.
Maintaining a playful attitude
The owner and I both share the same attitude toward business: we see it as playful and fun. We’re constantly open to learning, we listen well to people and incorporate their feedback, we see failures as opportunities for growth, and we try to have a light heart and a gentle touch in all of our work. That makes a big difference in the vibe that potential clients get from us: everyone wants to feel good, and we convey that working with us is going to feel good.
What hasn't worked (yet)
We spent some time on these, composing a ‘nurture sequence’ of emails for potential clients with links to helpful articles. We stopped doing them because we got much higher open rates when we sent personal emails than we did through automated emails. We also weren’t getting enough subscribers to an email list for our efforts to be worthwhile. So we decided that we might as well capitalize on our ability to send personal emails as long as we're a small company, and save automated emails for a time when we have a larger audience.
The owner had tried paid ads online and in magazines before my time with the company, but never got any traction from them. We may try them again in the future, but for now we’re focused on improving the quality of our services.
The owner liked to give holiday gifts to clients he had good relationships with. The previous year he’d made small wooden cutting boards that didn’t get any feedback. This year, we were both in the mood to bake, so we decided to put together packages of cookies for our clients, with the idea that when the owner delivered them, he would be able to have a good chat with the client about how things were going. It didn’t turn out that way: there was a blizzard, and brief niceties were exchanged, and no one mentioned the cookies afterwards. We’re not sure if we're going to do gifts next year, because it seems like improving our services might be the greatest gift we can offer.
The brochure is kind of an inside joke for us, because we've been working on it on and off for a year and a half and still don't have a decent hard copy in our hands. Would it be helpful to have a brochure to take to meetings with potential clients and to post in signs outside of homes where we're doing projects? Yes, yes it would. But coordinating and committing to all the decisions around photos, copy, paper, and printers has been low on our long list of priorities. But I look forward to moving this to the 'What's Worked' section in the future!
I've been wanting to produce and post short videos on our process, showcasing the owner's vast experience and wisdom in all aspects of design-build. We'd been admiring a design-build company on the East Coast and how they were using video to connect to people and grow their business, and I thought it would be a powerful tool for us. But between the pandemic and the million other tasks on our list, video production has fallen down the list for now.
Consistent content production
Acme has been a one-person operation for 15 years, and all decisions have always gone through the owner. One of our tasks is to de-centralize and systematize our work so it's not all dependent on his approval. Some things are easier than others: estimating, logistics, and painting can easily be done by other employees, but other things like design and some aspects of marketing still have to go through him. As his schedule has filled up, it's been harder and harder to consult with him about the articles and social media posts we want to write. We're still working out the best way to produce helpful content on a consistent basis.
We're happy that the phone is ringing so often these days, and yet we're also acutely aware that our work has just begun. Creating services that enhance people's lives, building trusting relationships, and helping people thrive are all daily quests for us. Hopefully some of these reflections have been helpful to you. If you have a minute, send me a note on what's worked and what hasn't in your own business's growth---it's so helpful to hear about other people's experiences during these times. And may your business dreams come to life!