Guidelines for Using a Reference / by keith messick

The Digital Era

It seems that every time you purchase a product or use a service, it’s only a short time before you get a request to review that product or service. Why is this? People read and make decisions based on reviews.

These reviews now substitute for and are used equivalently as references and referrals. In the past, before purchasing a product or using a service, people would ask others what they thought about that product or service. There would be a dialogue that would enable the potential purchaser to discuss the pros/cons of the product or service in question. Much of this dialogue is now gone; replaced by written online reviews. Similar, but not the same.


Referral: The act or process of transferring someone or something to another, of sending by reference, or referring.

Reference: A relationship or relation (to something).

Review: An opinion of work performed posted online for others to read.


I am going to discuss referrals and references in this post and use them somewhat interchangeably (even though they are slightly different).

Design / Construction Projects

I want to discuss references/referrals for a specific kind of work: design and construction professionals.

I always encourage people to get several references for any potential design or construction professional they plan to hire. Reading online reviews is a good start. But it really is not enough.

What is Important to You?

This sounds too simple. What are the qualities of a professional that you feel are important?

Here are some attributes/qualities/factors to consider that I have found to be very important for design/construction professionals:


  • Do you want the construction site cleaned up everyday (or weekly or monthly)?

  • Vehicle: Does a new car or work truck matter?

  • Personal appearance: Clean shaven / smell good?

  • Precautions taken for existing (non-project) areas of the site/house?


  • Do they show up on time?

  • Do they leave on time?

  • Do they stick to a set and communicated schedule?

  • Are tasks accomplished when they are supposed to be completed?


  • Do they listen?

  • Do they hear you?

  • Do they do what they say they are going to do?

  • How: Text / Email / Phone?


  • When do you want to be able to talk to your professional (daily / evenings / weekends)?

  • Acceptable response time (immediate / within the hour / end of day / next day)?

Quality Expectations

  • What is your definition of quality? Examples?

  • What is their definition of quality? Examples?

  • Does “high quality” mean the same thing to you and the professional (use examples)?

Level of Service

  • Do they anticipate your needs?

  • Do they respect your time / schedule?

  • Do they address ancillary issues?

  • Do they explain what they are doing and why?


  • Can they meet your budget?

  • Can they really meet your budget? Examples?

  • What is their typical building cost per sq foot for comparable projects?


  • All of the above issues fall into, or touch upon, the realm of being responsible. However, being responsible is understanding the wants and needs of the client and taking steps to make their life easier. It is taking ownership of the project and seeing it through to successful completion. (See “A Residential Project”)

It is important to know what you want when you are reading reviews or listening to someone give you a reference about a professional. If the review / reference does not cover the items that are important to you, the value of that review/reference is substantially diluted and of questionable value.

And you should prioritize. Unless you have no limitations on your budget, finding someone that matches all your “wants” is extremely difficult.

Guidelines for Using a Reference

From someone you know:

Are you like everyone else? Do you feel the same way? Of course not. You are different. And your response to the way people behave (act and react) will be different as well. What is your level of expectation? Level of desired quality? The only way for you to understand a reference is to first understand who is giving the reference.

Knowing the person who supplies the review will allow you to normalize the review. That is, make the review personally applicable to you. You first understand the review from the reviewer’s point of view. Then, understanding the reviewer, allow for the differences between you and the reviewer. Now, after this adjustment, the review has real meaning.

From a project that you know and have personally and physically seen in detail:

You should physically inspect the work being referenced. Feel the space, both physically and emotionally. If you don’t see the project being referenced, how will you be able to judge the quality of the project? Photographs are not sufficient. It is amazing how good a space can appear in a photograph. Then, in reality, the space is quite different.

From a similar project:

The work being reviewed should be for a similar project. If your project is the remodel of a Master Bath and the review is for a Garage Addition, there are significant differences between the projects. The space layout, use of space, and finishes (among other things) are all quite different. There is still value in the reference (if it meets the other reference criteria). However, it would be much more relevant if the projects were similar.

Get Personal

Go ahead and read any available reviews. However, my preference is to get a personal reference/referral over reading reviews. You really need to discuss the work of the potential professional you are thinking about hiring. And it really helps if you know the person who is giving the reference. A conversation allows you to do this.

Take Your Time

Starting a home renovation or building a custom home is exciting. And it’s a significant investment. Take the time at the beginning to find and build a team of professionals that meet your expectations. Doing so will make your project enjoyable and, most importantly, successful. Failing this will almost ensure a frustrating and stressful experience with an unpleasant outcome.