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When growing a service-based business, it's important to understand how customers find and evaluate your offerings.

After all, if you know what methods your target market uses to find its service providers, you can incorporate more of those activities into your marketing mix and, in turn, attract more clients.

This year, my firm conducted a research study on buyers of professional services, with the goal of determining how buyers learned about and tracked down their current service providers. We put the following question to 325 participants: "When searching for a potential provider of consulting and professional services, what methods were most effective in helping you identify and learn more about the service provider you hired."

Here are the three key insights from the study:

1. Referrals. Research showed that 85 per cent of buyers used referrals to locate service providers. This is a significant percentage of buyers that use referrals to identify and learn about their chosen provider. Given this information, service firms should dedicate more time and investment to the development and execution of referral programs.

This isn't the generally the case, however. We see the bulk of investment going to creating opportunities with unknown prospects and building a pipeline full of cold opportunities. While this step cannot be overlooked, it's more critical for firms to spend time cultivating current relationships for referrals.

A number of service firms believe one or both of the following: that asking for referrals is in bad taste or that if you do good work, referrals will come naturally. Both of these ideas are flawed. Waiting for referrals to roll in, and not asking for them, means you are not in control of your own growth and as a result, you're missing out on opportunities to acquire new business.

Every service firm should want referrals because these types of clients are the most reliable, pay the most money, negotiate price the least, buy the most often and, in turn, generate more referrals.

The path to referrals isn't a complex one. It simply starts as a conversation with a potential referrer and helping them connect the dots between who they know and who you help.

2. Brand awareness driven by content. The second most common way for buyers to identify and learn about their service provider comes from content marketing. From blog posts and podcasts, to website descriptions and webinars, there's an endless number of options for the types of content available. We did, however, ask respondents what content was the most influential and found case studies and white papers at the top of the list.

While creating content is important, what's more important is reach. Your content could be high-quality, but if it's not getting to your prospects, it's not doing a lot to help your firm. To get your content to the masses, meet with local Chambers of Commerce and industry related associations and ask them for ways that you can distribute content to their membership, also bring them a few ideas in case they are open to trying new approaches.

Be sure to also incorporate your marketing content into the direct sales process. Arming your sales team with content will not only help them in their outreach efforts but your marketplace will learn more about you by reading it as well.

3. In-person events. Seminars, presentations, and conferences came in as the third most prevalent way buyers identify and learn about their service provider.

In-person events give buyers the opportunity to evaluate providers face-to-face, evaluate them, and decide whether or not this person seems to be someone they would like to work with.

I believe this method is third, and not second, is because in-person events are rarely held by professional service firms and buyers don't often get opportunities to engage through events. Holding an in-person event can seem like a significant effort, but it can be executed rather easily and in my experience have a much higher likelihood of generating clients.

When you decide to host an event, keep it simple. Again, approach your local Chamber of Commerce or industry related association and pitch an engaging topic to present.

My challenge to you: The insight garnered from this research provides a picture of what the marketplace uses to find service providers. Take one of these approaches and integrate it into your marketing mix.

If you don't have a referral program, create one! If you are already creating content, start sending it directly to your clients via direct mail. If you have something to share with your marketplace, book a small venue and hold an in-person event.

If you're looking for new ways to drive growth and expansion start with one of these approaches.

Ryan Caligiuri is the president of Ryan Caligiuri International, a consultancy focused on driving revenue growth through creative growth strategies for professional services firms. Mr. Caligiuri is also the founder of The Growth Network, a program that provides sales/marketing resources & training to help grow professional services firms.

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