Referrals are Not Enough: How Buyers Evaluate Professional Services


How do prospects evaluate you as a professional services provider?

Lots of firms will give you a familiar answer: references and referrals. But as savvy marketers know, the web is increasingly a cornerstone for professional services buyers. Buyers have more ways than ever to find information, and they are using those tools more and more often—and in more and more ways.

So we’ve hit a tipping point.

Even as some high-growth professional services firms embark on ambitious online marketing projects, many more are lagging behind, focusing on a traditional evaluative tactics such as references and referrals.

Still others may know they’re being evaluated online, but they don’t know exactly where and how they’re being evaluated, or what prospective buyers are looking for.

This kind of confusion sometimes leads to scattershot or badly targeted online efforts.

At Hinge, we wanted to get to the bottom of this shift in how buyers evaluate a company.

  • How are purchasers really checking out service providers?
  • What are the most effective ways to share your expertise?
  • How can sellers make sure they’re spending their time and money making themselves visible in the right places?

We reasoned that if you understood the evaluative habits of professional services buyers, you’d be better equipped to craft an online presence that places you above the competition and makes you a high-growth firm.

With this in mind, we surveyed over 1000 buyers of professional services to find the answers to our questions. We’ve unpacked our findings in a new, freely available research report, “Beyond Referrals: How Today’s Buyer’s Check You Out.”

So what did we learn? Let’s take a look at some of our findings—including the top ways buyers learn about sellers online and the social media platform most purchasers are really using.

Respondents’ purchases

First, what type of professional services were our respondents buying?

Our surveyed buyers purchased a variety of service types, including:

  • Accounting and finance
  • Technology
  • Architecture, engineering, and construction
  • Communications and marketing
  • Management Consulting
  • Legal

Across these industries, the most frequently purchased was accounting and finance, with 53.9% of our respondents purchasing this type of service. The next most commonly bought service was communications and marketing, at 46.6% of surveyed buyers.

We found that, on average, the purchasers in our study bought 2.3 service types in the survey period. Indeed, professional services buyers are searching for and evaluating a range of different types of expertise.

Checking out sellers

Now comes the big question: How are buyers checking out sellers? Put another way, how are professional services purchasers evaluating and gathering information about providers?

Let’s take a look at the chart:


Immediately, two facts jump out at us. First, purchasers are using more than one strategy to find information: On average, our respondents are utilizing 3.2 methods. Second, these buyers’ evaluative efforts are conducted predominantly online.

Let’s take a moment to unpack this.

With 55.5% of surveyed buyers using provided references, it’s clear that referrals are still important. And it’s pretty safe to say that references will remain a significant way to learn about service providers for the foreseeable future.

But it’s clear that references are no longer the only way or even the most important way that buyers evaluate a company.

In fact, every single online search method—Google, a firm’s website, and social media—ranked higher than references. Overwhelmingly, buyers are looking to sellers’ websites to evaluate them as a provider. They’re exploring sellers’ presence on social media platforms. And sometimes they’re getting online to seek information from friends or colleagues.

Buyers have many opportunities to learn more about a professional services firm. And they’re taking full advantage of those tools.

The turn toward social

One of the study’s stand-out findings is that social media now eclipses references as a source of insight on a provider.

Indeed, social media is just one way that buyers might quickly and easily look for perspective from colleagues, friends, and other industry contacts. But not all social media platforms are created equally.

Among respondents who used social media to check out providers,

For many firms, shotgunning social media feeds for the sake of a strong social media presence simply may not make sense. When a professional services firm is making decisions about which platforms to focus on, LinkedIn should likely be a higher priority than Twitter.

While it’s important for a firm to explore social media usage in their specific area of an industry, the trend is clear: LinkedIn is overwhelmingly the dominant source of evaluative information gathered via social media.

But why the disparity? LinkedIn’s professional focus is critical, of course, but so is the range of relevant information it makes available. On LinkedIn, you might:

  • Check out a firm’s own LinkedIn page
  • Peruse the profiles and updates of the firm’s team members
  • Explore their contributions to relevant LinkedIn Groups
  • Reach out to folks who have experience with the firm

The key thing to remember about LinkedIn is that it’s not so much a “marketing channel” as an environment, almost like a sprawling, ongoing professional event. That makes it a natural tool for buyers looking to learn more. And it makes LinkedIn a particularly important place for sellers to make their expertise visible.

The low barrier to rich insight

There are two keys reason for buyers’ mass turn toward the Web.

First, there’s a low barrier to entry for online search. Reaching out to a set of references may not be particularly difficult, but it still requires some coordination. By contrast, Googling is as easy as opening your Web browser.

Second, this minimal effort typically yields a rich diversity of results. Your website, perhaps news and conversation about your work, comments on social media and elsewhere.

This is going to give prospects many different perspectives on your firm, and it underscores an essential point: Whether you tend to it or not, you already have an online reputation. And that reputation is shaping prospects’ impressions of you.

For the most part, people have already made a shift to “online.” But it isn’t complete. As technology allows us to digitize more of our experiences, this ongoing paradigm shift is exploding old assumptions about the most important ways to share your expertise with the marketplace—and suggesting new opportunities for firms to connect with prospects.

Put simply, firms can no longer afford to ignore tools like social and SEO.

While tried and true strategies like a list of references are still necessary, they’re no longer sufficient. Buyers are searching for accessible, textured, and diverse forms of information about you. In order to keep up, it’s essential to make sure that rich insight is available for them to find.

Don’t miss other Crazy Egg articles by Lee Frederiksen.

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