Today we dive into direct advertising methods and client retention with UK architect James Butterworth of Studio J Architects. James shares some interesting strategies that he's used to spread the word about his boutique architecture firm.
In this episode you'll hear:
- The marketing channels that James Butterworth uses to spread the word about his young firm
- The one method of marketing that James would choose if he had to pick only one option
- James' “secret sauce” for keeping his clients happy – and making sure they provide referrals
- Vist the Studio J Architects website
- Connect with James Butterworth on Facebook
- Connect with James Butterworth on Twitter
- Connect with James Butterworth on Google+
Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:
Enoch: So, James, it was excellent talking to you last week about starting up your firm and transitioning from commercial work to residential practice. I look forward to talking to you today a little bit more about the marketing aspect of things, finding clients, and building those relationships.
James: Sure. Thanks for having me back.
Enoch: Yeah, you bet. Was there anything in the last episode that you wanted to touch on before we move on to the client side of things?
James: Nothing in particular. My story was very, obviously, personal to me because that’s how I’ve lived my life over the last four or five years. I think anybody going down the same route, it would be personal to them, and they will have different challenges or different goals, and different positives to me.
So, in a way, you’ve got to make it work for yourself. You can’t follow a template from somebody else 100%. You may be lucky and it may work, but you’ve got to work out what works best for you, for your own personal results that you want to get.
Enoch: For those who are joining us on this episode, James, could you just give a brief synopsis of what we talked about last: who you are, leaving your old firm, and how you got to where you’re at right now?
James: Sure, yeah. I previously, for many years worked in a large, commercial practice on large projects like education and leisure buildings. Due to the very bad economic downturn in the UK, I was made redundant along with several other people in that company, but also within the industry. I soon realized that there was next to no chance of being employed by another company because all the companies were releasing the staff because there were just very few buildings being built, certainly, in the commercial sector.
So, I decided to start my own practice and get my own work. Through some initial friends and former contacts, I’ve got a couple of small residential projects. Following that, I continued down that route to where I am now.
Enoch: How long did it take from the time when you left that firm to the time when you felt like, “Okay, this is sustainable?” “I feel like I can make money doing this, and the future is starting to look more secure”?
James: Sure. There were several times when I thought, “Yes, this is it.” You know, I get a new, big project, and say, “Oh, fantastic. I’m on my way now.” Then, I do that project, and then it would go quiet again – and I wouldn’t understand that. I thought I was sorted here, and it’s just a bit of a learning curve. I would say there were many peaks, I thought, “Brilliant!” and then, several droughts straight afterwards.
So, I don’t know if you ever think you’re a 100% safe because I’m responsible for my own income. If I didn’t come in to work, I wouldn’t have an income. So, if you ever relax and think “This is easy,” that is when work stops coming in. You’ve always got to work at it.
Maybe after a year or two I thought this will work if I keep going at it, but it was tough for those first couple of years. Then, even after that, the realization, I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. I have to work at it.
Enoch: So, it sounds like the toughest part of those… When you say, “It was tough for the first couple of years,” it sounds like that’s because of the workflow being low, that it was the finding the clients that was the challenge?
James: It was – finding the clients, but also finding regular clients.
I mentioned on the last one that I employed another architect to help me because I’ve got a couple of large projects that was too much for me to do by myself, and I was really busy for a few months. I thought, “Well, this is great. We’re on our way.”
So, those projects finished. The architect that I was employing was purely based for those projects and he then went off and did his own thing. He would say, “So, where’s the next project coming from?” It was, kind of, having that – very much feast and famine – trying to get that steady flow of projects was really difficult to do. It’s very much managing your workload and predicting where you’re going to be, not just in a week or two’s time, but in a couple of months time and maybe even in six month’s time.
Enoch: Okay. So, just to summarize… I’m going to give you a couple of options here, and I’m going to ask you about the biggest challenge you had setting up your own firm. I’m just going to throw a couple of things out there that maybe were challenges. If none of those were the biggest challenge, you can explain.
I’m thinking about, maybe, the legal structure of forming a business, maybe the actual finding the work and getting enough projects in the door to be able to support yourself and your business, maybe getting the work done, setting up the standards, and being able to manage the time so the projects were delivered correctly. What was the number one challenge would you say with starting your own firm?
James: I think the number one thing, in any business not just architecture, you have to have the clients. Without the clients, you don’t have a business.
Learning the things like how to win a business whether it’s the legal things or the accounting structures – I didn’t mind doing that. I quite enjoyed certain aspects of it. But, simply, if you don’t have the clients, you don’t have a business. You may have wonderfully neat accounts, but if you’ve got nothing coming in, there’s no point in having those accounts.
Enoch: Do you feel like you’ve solved that problem enough to be proficient in terms of you know where to go to find clients now?
James: Yeah. I think I’ve got very different roots which bring work in. It’s quite interesting in that it’s not an exact Science. There’s a lot of trial and error which I’ve used over the years. Some things have worked great, and some things I thought I’ve just thrown a lot of money down the drain and it’s been a waste of time, but I’ve learned my lesson and not done the same thing again.
So, yeah, getting the clients and how you do that in various, different avenues in getting them for me is the key thing, anyway.
Enoch: Tell me about what was the first thing you tried, and then take me along the path of- tell me about some of the failures that you had that didn’t work and maybe you tried this, and it did work, and then, kind of, how you got to where you are right now with your marketing.
James: Sure, yeah. Well, I did mention the first couple of jobs I got were through contacts which I knew through friends of mine, my friends, and my family.
Then, the next project I had… In Britain we’ve got something called “Architect in the House,” which is the RIBA [Inaudible 00:08:21] British Architects, and a housing charity called Shelter join together. Every year, they do a campaign to put architects in touch with homeowners who want to extend or modify. They, kind of, join them together and the homeowner gives a small sum to the homeless charity for the initial consultation and design work.
So, I signed up for that. It was free for me to sign up to that. I got put in touch with a couple in Leeds. That was the first client I had who I had no connection to at all. I did the project for them, and they gave a certain amount of money to the charity. So, the charity gets something out of it, and the client got an architect who was a registered architect with the RIBA. They felt they got someone that they could trust and I got the project out of it.
It was, in a way, kind of, everybody wins to a certain extent. For me, it allowed me to get the next project along.
Enoch: Okay. So, that was an initial consultation that they donated the fee to that to charity, and then from then on it was a regular fee-based work for the project.
James: That’s correct, yeah.
Enoch: Okay. So, that was a big win. You went to that, so that was an event. I’m sure you thought, “Wow, this is great. Maybe if I can find more of these…” Where did you go from there?
James: Well, the next… That’s just an annual thing. So, once I’ve got that project – that was it for another twelve months. So, that, obviously, wasn’t a route I could rely on getting regular work.
I then tried a bit of advertising in a local magazine. It wasn’t very expensive. I thought, “Well, it’s good, it’s in an area that’s quite a wealthy area,” [Inaudible 00:10:21] things like that. I thought I’ll advertise in that. That got me, actually, no work at all. I, kind of, went “Okay, I’m moving from that,” and look at the next thing.
Enoch: Can you tell me a little bit about how you went about selecting that publication, and then what your advertisement was like, and how you went through that process?
James: Sure, yeah. The village where my parents lived, it was the local magazine for that. It gets distributed to people in the village, and there are various adverts within it for various services. It’s nothing special, you know, it had my logo and said something about what I did.
It potentially could have gotten some work because I felt it was the right client-base. I was trying to think of people who had a bit of money, and might be looking to invest in their property in the area. The distribution – where the magazine went to was that type of area.
I think, probably, the main thing was it was such a very small distribution. So, if it only goes to a hundred people, they’re not necessarily all going to call you up. You’re lucky if you get one or two. If it’s going to a thousand or ten thousand and you get, kind of, 1%, that’s quite a lot. I’m thinking about the distribution and who reads it, things like that.
Enoch: Okay. So, you tried that, and that was something that didn’t work out for you.
Enoch: So, you learned from that.
James: Yup. The next thing I found- because, basically, I was thinking, “Well, how do people find architects?” “If they didn’t know me, what do they do? How do they find architects?”
I e-mailed everybody in my inbox, all my friends and family from, you know, teenagers to 20s/30 year olds, all the way up to retired people, so I got a really good, wide spread. I said, “If you didn’t know me or you didn’t know an architect, where would you go find one?” The biggest response was via the Internet. So, well, that’s where it is. I’ve got to have a presence on the Internet.
It was very simple. Googled “Architects in Leeds,” see what came up. Obviously, several practices came up, but also these lead generator websites. I don’t know if you have them in America or not. I’m guessing, probably, you do.
Basically, it’s just a site for people who are looking for an architect to put their details in, a brief description about the project, and it gets sent off to a load of architects who signed up to that site. So, it gets information and they think “Yeah, this is a project I’ve been interested in,” or “It’s not for me.” If they’re interested in it, you then pay a bit of money to get the details of that person, and then, hopefully, you get to speak with them, and go meet with them, and then get the project.
It’s quite a small outlay to start with because to get somebody’s details it may only be £10 or £15, some are cheaper. That client then has to choose between however many people are signed up.
So, that allowed me to find people who are looking for architects and gave me that opportunity to go and meet with them, and hopefully give them a quote, and hopefully get some work. That was where the next few jobs came through for me because I got some people’s details, that I’d like to meet with them, and they like me, they like how much I was charging, or for whatever reason. They decide to then proceed with me with their projects.
Enoch: Do you know what their primary consideration was or why they chose you? You mentioned maybe fee was a factor and that they also liked your personality. Did you get a good feel for how you’re able to close those deals?
James: Sure. Well, that’s a key thing which I’ve learned over the years. It’s like everything you’re always learning. When you go to meet people, it’s understanding them, and judging them, and trying to work out what their requirements are for a project.
Some people just want very basic drawings or want to get on with it themselves. They just want the bare minimum. They just want a very small service – give them drawings, don’t want to pay much, that’s it. When you’re talking to them and they tell you those things, there’s no point in putting a big fee in it which has a long list of extra services which you’re going to do, which they’re not wanting.
On the other side, they might be somebody who’s not too worried about the fees, but they want, you know, the hand-holding all the way through the project. They want you to deal with the builders. They want you to do pretty much everything. You know, “Here are the keys, just get on with it. We want a nice, finished project.”
Well, they may want you to have some real creative design because they may not have a clue what they want. They may have the exact design they want and they just want you to fine tune it. So, it’s understanding their needs and tailoring your service and your fees appropriately to that.
Enoch: Gotcha. So, take me to the present day and how your marketing progressed. Where did you go from there?
James: Yeah. Again, it’s just, kind of, trying to think: Where do people find architects? Where do they look if they’re going to find one? Online was main one.
I got my website looking good after a couple of poor attempts by myself. So, I’ve got that looked in to. When I met with somebody, the first thing that they would do once I’ve left is look at my website. So, the website was looking nice, made me look professional, and had creative ideas and things like that. It gave them a bit more confidence to understand that. Then, following the website, the social media with Twitter and Facebook, and things like that. Then, it was, kind of, trying other avenues as well.
One thing I tried was there’s a local gym which had a flat screen T.V. in the corner on the running machines, and it had some adverts on that. So, I tried advertising on that. I got a bit of work through that. I thought, well, yeah, it’s nice to get a bit of work, but the fees that they were charging, I thought, “Well, it’s not really worth it because I could spend less money and potentially get more work elsewhere.”
Then things like – just simple things. If you put a sign in front of your project when it’s being built, especially if it’s on a main road, or even if it’s on a quiet road, people will see your name and say, “Oh, that company is the architect for there.” “I like what they’re doing,” or “I’m looking for one and they’re there,” you know, “I’ll give them a call.”
If they can see that somebody else has trusted you because you are doing their extension or building a house, or a commercial unit, or whatever, they’re going to phone you and say, “Oh, I like what you’ve done. My neighbor’s trusted you to do their extension. I want you to come and talk to me about my extension,” or project, or whatever it is.”
Enoch: What are your most effective marketing challenge right now to find and get new leads and inquiries? So, you mentioned the signs, you mentioned a little bit of advertising, you mentioned the web presence.
James: I think there isn’t one thing which always gets me work, or you know, if I put more money in to it, you know. It was various things. I have the little postcard leaflets. So, when I’m going to a site or if I’m out and about, I’ll walk down the street and put it through the letter boxes, and I get a bit of work through there.
The main one, however, is a website. It seems where most people do is Google, you know, “Architects in Leeds from the South,” or “Architect in Yorkshire,” which is the wider area, which I am, or “Residential architect,” things like that. The larger projects and the more significant ones have come through that and then following an initial meeting.
Most people will meet with more than one architect especially when it’s a personal project whether it’s building a new house, or an extension, or their business. They want to work with a person that they can trust and can understand what they want. So, that first meeting is really key in setting a good impression of who you are and what you do, but also understanding them.
There’s no point in, kind of, lying and saying… Well, you know, finding out if they’re in to Formula 1 racing, and say, “Yeah, I’m in to Formula 1 racing.” You know they’re going to start talking to you about it. There’s no point in trying to do that. People don’t want to work with a salesman who would say anything to get the job. They want to work with someone they could trust and is honest.
So, you don’t have to be exactly like them, you just have to understand how they live their life or how their business works, so you can prove or show that you can design it best for them and understanding their needs.
Enoch: What do you do during that first meeting, the first time you meet face to face with a client? Let’s take it back a step. The phone call, what happens during the phone call, and then how does the process go from there?
James: Sure. Quite often, I’ll actually meet somebody whether it’s at a networking event. I might not hear from them for six months or so. Then, I’ll get a call out of the blue. Well, I’ll spend the time talking to them. As I said previously, it’s not just a case of a two-minute “Here’s my name. This is what I do,” and move on. It’s spending the time to talk to them and developing that relationship so they trust you and understand you. If you got that, they’re more likely to invite you in to their lives to entrust you with large sums of money.
So, if I get a phone call and I’ve not met them previously, I’ll talk to them about the project on the phone, trying to understand as much as I can. Then it’s a case of, “I’d like to come and meet you in person and talk about it in detail some more.” You know, “And that’s a complimentary service. I don’t charge for that.” Again, it’s not a case of in-and-out in five minutes. I’ll be there for as long as it needs for me to understand the project, and understand it in detail, and understand them and what their requirements are.
When you ask about the project, you also ask about what their job is, what their hobbies are, and things like that. So, if you can understand if they say need a space for a home office, somebody may just want a small desk in the corner, just enough to put a laptop on, and that’s it. But, if you spoke to them and they told you “Well, I work from home one day a week, can I have a lot of filing? I need a lot of space to spread out, and all this lot, you then understand that they need more than just a table in the corner. They need a proper designated room for that so they could work from home.
It’s about understanding the detail of what they want. You’re not charging anything for this, but if you’re giving all these knowledge, and information, and understanding for free, they’re more likely to trust you to do a good job, and want to take you on throughout the whole project.
Enoch: Do you have an idea about how many – what the percentage of inquiries actually turns in to real projects that you land as a job?
James: Sure, yeah. I’d say more land into jobs than don’t. I don’t know. Maybe 60%-70%. Something like that.
Enoch: So, from that initial meeting, from the people you actually meet face to face, maybe 60%…
James: Yeah. From the people I meet face to face it’s probably higher. Whether it’s a phone call or through the lead generator website, I may phone them up and they’ve already got three phone calls from three other architects and they don’t want to meet another one. That’s fair enough. I should have phoned a bit quicker, and sometimes it’s not possible to do that.
So, yes, once I’ve actually gone through that initial meeting with them, I’d say, you know, more often than not, it does lead to being a full project, yeah.
Enoch: Okay. Do you remember the name of that lead-generating website? I’m just curious what’s going on over there in the UK.
James: There’s two or three. If you just Google it, it’s the first ones which are on the top, the paid adverts. I can’t remember their names, but yeah.
Enoch: Yeah. We’ll put it in the show notes. Well, I’ll send you a follow-up email so we could include that in the show notes.
James: Yeah. Those are the few. I know one because I’ve used it for myself. If you’re just wanting a tradesman, or a decorator, or a plumber, or something like that, there’s one called WeDo Trades or something like that, or Trusted Tradesmen and things like that. There are various kinds depending on what the industry is and things like that.
There are various different ones, but it’s all just to let people have a page on there, it says a bit about them and things like that. They’re all slightly different, but at the end of the day, it’s a client putting in their details, and it gets sent off to various architects who then pay to get their phone number, basically, to be able to contact them.
Enoch: Do you find that the leads off of those types of services are generally low-quality or is it worth the investment for you?
James: I’d say they are, generally, lower. But, if you’re paying, like, £10 to get a job and the job brings in an income of a couple of thousand pounds, it’s definitely worth it. It may not take much of your time. If it’s a job that’s you go and see them on a Monday and you’ve basically done the work by the Friday, it’s in-and-out, and it’s great.
They may not want much involvement. The [Inaudible 00:25:02] know exactly what they want. They just want the drawings to get through the various approvals. It’s a part of what we do. It’s a quick-and-easy job. But, the more involved jobs, the higher design, the higher specifications don’t tend to come through those websites.
Enoch: Got it. Are there any other marketing channels, James, that we’ve left out? I know you’ve made a list…
Enoch: In preparation for the interview? You want to run us through your notes there?
James: I’ll just see if I’ve got… There’s one thing, a blog, which I touched on previously with social network and things like that. I do my own small blog, but I also, and I did this more than my own to start with, it’s guesting on other people’s blogs. So, this was through Twitter.
I contacted or linked with this – a cultural website in the Leeds area, [Inaudible 00:26:00] Yorkshire. They write stories about all types of cultural things like new art exhibitions and all that, kind of, cultural things. Also, they were interested in somebody writing about architecture. So, I volunteered my services to write a few pieces for that.
That gave me an immediate profile with a recommended and a trusted website because they’re well-trusted and well-known in the area. So, that immediately seem, “Well, if they’ve trusted him to write that blog on that piece on that website, he must know what he’s talking about.” It just gives other people just that little bit of confidence that you know what you’re doing, basically. So, that’s one area that I looked at.
Well, we’ve touched briefly on networking events, not online but actual face-to-face networking. I don’t intend to do much of it. But, wherever you are, you’re always meeting people, you’re always talking to people and so are your friends and family. Make people aware of what you do. It doesn’t have to be a big sales pitch by any stretch; you just mention what you do. It can take thirty seconds and you get chatting about something else.
The more people know what you do, the more likely you got people phoning you up. So, the key to do that… I mentioned about the seminars I went to a lot of. You know, you’re in a room with twenty/thirty people who are all starting up various businesses and things like that. Those twenty or thirty people all have family and friends. If they know what you do, there’s a good chance that somebody might want an architect from that. So, that was networking.
I had a couple of articles in newspapers and magazines, which is quite good. Again, this all stems back from Twitter when I was on Twitter. Someone then who did the marketing for a local property event, and she just started in the job, and she didn’t really know anybody, and she had to fill a table at this big local awards [Inaudible 00:28:21]. I had connected with her on Twitter, and we were chatting, so she invited me to this awards [Inaudible 00:28:28] which is quite nice, got all dressed up, and had a free meal and free drinks, and things like that.
At that event I was sat next to a local reporter who reports on local property issues. So, I ended up chatting to her all evening. Following that, I’ve got a connection with her and was able to have a direct route to her in getting articles in the local paper because of it. When people see you’ve got an article in the paper, again, it’s another, kind of, notch for them to trust you a little bit more. So, that’s another thing.
Then, the final thing that I, kind of, mentioned is the office of which I’m in here. As you know, I work primarily by myself, but I’m in a creative, collaborative office with about fifty or sixty people within the whole office area or from various creative businesses.
It’s a really a nice, unique area to work just from the design which you can see behind. This is our meeting room, which has got all kinds of quirky things in there; the office area that I’m in, it’s got cardboard walls, and we’ve got, kind of, picnic benches and things like that. So, it’s a really a creative space to work in and it’s got a reputation in the area for having good, creative people in there – people know about it.
So, I would just say, “Oh, I’m in Duke Studio” which is what it’s called. They say, “Oh, I know Duke Studios. They do some really good stuff in there.” So, it’s automatic you’ve got a reputation which you can, kind of, piggy-back on to a certain extent. But, you know, you have to prove yourself. You can’t just, kind of, turn up and not do very good work and things like that. So, that’s good.
Also, the interaction with other people who are in the office who can, potentially provide leads because they have all various clients and things like that. People from website and graphic designers, to interior designers, product designers, and you know, landscape architects, and all those types of things which we all interact with each other, and provide leads, and things like that to each other. So, that’s a really good base to have my office here.
Enoch: Excellent. So, the last thing you touched on there was just the office and finding people in there who can, maybe, give you some referrals, but also being part of a larger group…
Enoch: That has a little bit of established credibility.
James: Yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Enoch: Have you found any people that have been really good for referrals? Any referral partners in similar disciplines that you’ve been able to form relationships with in the past [Inaudible 00:31:09]
James: I think through working here has been the most referrals, I think, through the people here. There’s an interior designer, she’s very well-known in the area, and been on T.V. and stuff like that. So, she’s got a large client base. I’ve got work through her because, obviously, they’re going to her knowing that she’s an interior designer, and obviously if it’s more than the interior design that she does, I can help her out along those routes.
Enoch: Okay. Anything else, James, in the notes there that you wanted to cover?
James: One more thing which I’ve got noted down which isn’t a good thing for me, but it was something that I did, but it didn’t work for me at all, and I spent quite a bit of time and money doing it. That was going to a tradeshow where it’s, kind of, a home builders show.
I took a stand there, and spending a lot of money getting our [Inaudible 00:32:16] presented and took three or four days off work to be there. For the money that I spent on it, it was basically a complete waste of time. I wouldn’t be going back again because it was… the people… It may just be my experience, it may work for other people and that’s great, but I felt the people who were there were there for a nice day out rather than to find an architect.
Enoch: So, what kind of building trade show was this? Was it a show for end-users to go in and look for ideas on their home and see what’s out?
James: It was marketed for all the process: literally, from finding sites, it also had some builders there, but also the various suppliers and manufacturers, and other architects there, and things like that. So, it was for people, depending on what stage of the process they were at.
If they were looking for a window supplier, there was plenty of those there. If they were looking for an architect, there are a small number of us. There wasn’t many. I, obviously, don’t know how well the other people did, but it seemed that people were more there for the products and for the finishings rather than at the early stage of the work. So, obviously, they already had an architect, they already had the planning, permissions, and things like that. So, they weren’t looking for an architect to start the project with.
Enoch: Okay, excellent. Anything else on the business side of things there that you noted down, James, that you think we should cover before we finish up?
James: Have I mentioned reference forms?
Enoch: No. Please tell us about that.
James: Right, yeah. At the end of every project, I give my client a form which is very simple: their name, the address, what the project was, and just any comments whether it’s good or bad. It’s really key to take on board what they say.
If they said some good things, you know you’re doing it right and they’ll recommend you, and keep doing those things. But, if those mentioned some things which aren’t so good, you definitely take those on board because you want to get those recommendations, you want to get the best service that you can give.
I remember, early on I did a project and one of the recommendations which he felt I could have improved on in my service was spending more time with him. So, I took that on board and now I spend as much time as they need to be [Inaudible 00:34:48] It may be not be, kind of, cost-effective for me to be spending all this time there, but some projects you have to spend a bit more time because at the end of the day, you want to get the best end-result because the end-result is what you sell yourself on.
So, if you’ve got a great building and the client’s happy, if you’ve got to do that extra bit of work to do that, it’s worth it because if you don’t, you potentially got a bad building and an unhappy client. If that gets spread around, it’s not good to have that reputation.
Enoch: So, we’re in a new year, 2014, how is the future looking in terms of business?
James: The future is looking absolutely fantastic. The economy over here in the last six months or so has really improved. So, I think that’s given a lot of people confidence, but also all the various marketing things that are bubbling away.
Now, we’re all, kind of, set up and going. That’s why I’m getting regular leads in from various, different areas. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, and it’s not just with the initial thing. I can see projects which are going to be lasting for several months in the future as well. So, yeah, it’s the best it’s been, if I could say so myself.
Enoch: Awesome. One last question, James. If you had to start all over again and you could only pick one marketing channel, which one would it be?
James: It would definitely be get your website great and get on Twitter. Is that two?
Enoch: We’ll count that as one, the online media. So, focus on your online media because they go hand-in-hand, I guess, right?
James: Yeah, exactly. You’ve got to be saying all the same things from different media doing it, yeah. Online is a key thing. That’s what I found [Inaudible 00:36:43]
Enoch: Well, Mr. James Butterworth, architect from Leeds, UK, thank you for joining us on the Business of Architecture show. It’s been a real pleasure.
James: Yeah, thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it.
Enoch: Okay. Talk to you later.
James: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Enoch: Okay, bye-bye.