“We don’t have enough sales in the church market,” laments an audio/video/lighting (AVL) integration firm owner. “We need to find a way to do more of these church installs…” he says, letting his sentence trail off as an open invitation for me to answer with some huge epiphany or closely-guarded secret about having success in the house of worship market. Instead of pontificating on my 20+ years of experience with this particular niche vertical, I ask him a question that I would ask of you, too: “In what business model do you get to reap from what you didn’t sow?”
His first response talks about his sales techniques and marketing efforts to attract church clients. I sit silently as he answers. Perhaps uncomfortable with the silence, he then goes on to say “tell me what we need to do to ‘reap’ in the church market.”
Go for the Ask
Because his firm, like most of the firms represented by the readers of this article, has sold to churches before, there’s an assumption that one sale begets another; but that’s not what salespeople will say. To get new work, you can either go after entirely new clients on your own, or you can go beyond the first sale by building a simple relationship with the church and ‘going for the ask’ for their recommendation. If your firm has done a good job of taking care of a church, they should have no problem writing a short letter (or even a paragraph!) of recommendation.
I’ve sat with churches over lunch after a project was completed, pulled out my laptop and asked if they’d be okay with giving me an endorsement, which I’d type in real-time as they spoke, and do some quick editing from my notes to ensure I’d caught the essence of what they’d said in addition to any specific quotes. In every situation, I’ve had them say helpful, nice things about our relationship and their experience before, during, and after the project. No one has turned me down, though I’d always offer to send them a copy via email so they could proofread it and share it with others if additional approval was needed. I’ve captured hundreds of letters of recommendations this way, and even had clients send me additional letters on their church letterhead.
A satisfied church client is most willing to recommend your firm immediately after a project is completed, so strike while the iron is hot by going for the ask.
Go for the Bigger Ask
Churches are remarkably well-connected. It sometimes still surprises me to learn how many other churches pastors and techies know. Because they’re generally well-networked, it’s smart to go for the bigger ask: what other churches/pastors would they be willing to introduce me to via an email? You might be shocked to learn just how often the pastor will begin to scroll through his smartphone and offer to give me names, emails, and phone numbers of other pastors. However, I’ve found that having that information is less useful when I am the one initiating the introduction than when my newly-impressed client was the one sending the email. I think this is simple relational mechanics: people are far more likely to open an email from a friend than from a stranger.
Without question, the vast majority of my work in the house of worship market has come from recommendations than from all of the advertising, conference sponsorships and sessions I’ve taught — combined. Now this is partly because as a consultant, my brand was simplified: it was just me, even when there’s been a team behind me. I’m not saying you have to brand your personal name to be identified, but you do need to have a brand that people trust — and that starts with your client-facing team members. While I’ve had pastors recommend me, or when I used to work in sales for AVL firms, recommend the firm, their letters of recommendation focused on my relationship with them more than it did with the name-recognition of the company. Again, this is simple mechanics of humans: people are more likely to trust a person than a firm; and even when they do trust a firm, there are figureheads that are associated with why people choose to trust a brand (Apple: Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Jon Ivey, Tim Cook, Guy Kawasaki, etc.). It’s a people-oriented business, so why not lead with your best people?
Go for the Biggest Ask
“How can we continue working together?” or “How can we best work with your church beyond this project?” are the questions I’ve asked as part of my follow-up within a few weeks after a completing a project. Sometimes, we’ve already answered part of this through extending training or even with a service contract, but the reason I ask after they’ve had the system in place for a few weeks is because they’re now thinking beyond the original pain point or desired outcome. And because I’ve built a trust relationship and demonstrated my expertise and empathy for their challenges, they are likely to re-frame this question to fit a different context than why you were brought in the first time.
Chances are, your firm has the capabilities and technologies to solve many, many challenges that churches face, but you’re likely brought in for only one or two at a time. Solving one project still leaves those others ready for tackling, right? So go for the biggies ask and see how you can continue to bring your expertise and technology in helpful ways to their church. It’s much, much easier to keep one client than it is to find a new one, so go deep with churches and you’ll find that, over time, you’ll have not only repeat business but even more opportunities to ask for recommendations and introductions to other churches. Without question, this is the highest probability method for growing your church market clientele, though you’ll still need to apply the principles I’ve shared in previous articles about working with staff, understanding this vertical market, and creating better content for churches to learn about your work and capabilities.
Do you have more than enough church clients? Will your firm go for the ask, the bigger ask, and the biggest ask? What do you have to lose?
Share your views and opinions in the comments below.