Referrals are the holy grail of freelance client acquisition. But they don’t come automatically, even for many experienced consultants. So, how do you get more referrals?
I’ve talked a lot about how word-of-mouth referrals have been a large part of my freelance business growth and success. Anyone who’s experienced freelancing for themselves — or has read about client acquisition strategies — will have heard that getting referral clients is the key to maintaining a pipeline of consistent work with less cost and effort.
However, as Abbey Woodcock recently pointed out:
Very few articles about getting clients really cover how to systematically generate referrals.
I’m guilty of that too. I’ve discussed client-acquisition quite a lot, yet apart from general terms like “building a strong reputation”, I’ve failed to go into detail about what steps you can take to encourage more organic referrals.
Challenge accepted! Today I will outline my strategy for how to turn nearly all of your clients into referral machines. And the solution may not be as direct as you’re expecting.
How do freelancers find clients?
Let’s take a step back and first consider all the ways freelancers may try to find new clients and projects:
- Their own website/portfolio (through organic search or direct).
- Receive work as a sub-contractor for larger agencies.
- Other industry-specific showcases/directories (like Dribbble or Behance for designers).
- Cold outreach (email, phone)
- Social media groups or campaigns (Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.)
- Attending live events (conferences, meetups, etc.)
- Gig Sites (Fivver, Upwork, Craigslist)
- Job Boards
- Paid traffic (google ads, facebook ads, etc.)
You may have a few more fringe channels to add to this list — depending on your industry, niche, marketing strength and preferences — but these tend to be the primary drivers of client acquisition for most freelancers and small creative service businesses.
I’ve ordered this list in the approximate order of importance for my own client acquisition pipeline. The percentage of success of each channel may differ greatly for you. But we’re here to talk about only one method, so let’s ignore the others.
Why are referrals the best form of freelance client acquisition?
Ease, and trust. Let me explain.
I’ve heard different numbers, but most people seem to agree that getting work from existing clients is about five times easier (faster, cheaper) than finding new clients. I hear you saying “referral clients aren’t existing clients!” and you’re right, but they come with most of the same benefits.
Referral clients come with the same ease of acquisition as existing clients. You could almost consider a referral as an extension of an existing client. You didn’t have to reach out or pitch to them, and they already know something about you and have some level of trust in you. More on trust below.
If you can cut your marketing efforts dramatically and still keep your work schedule busy with referral work, who wouldn’t want that? We all like it when good clients fall into our laps with very little effort on our end. That’s the freelance dream (really, the dream of all service businesses regardless of size).
However there’s a deeper reason to encourage referrals. Referral clients trust you more.
Trust is a hugely important factor is building client relationships. Trust helps grease the wheels of the creative feedback/revisions process, allowing you more freedom to use your skills and experience. Trust makes client communication more enjoyable and effective. Trust leads to long-term partners.
I consider building trust to be a key part of any client onboarding process, and it often takes the first 25% of a project to communicate expectations effectively and build that trust over time.
But referral clients come to you with a large part of that trust already baked in. Why?
When a friend, family member, or colleague — a person you already trust and respect — refers you to someone or something, some of that trust rubs off. It transfers to the thing they’ve recommended by good association. You think — with less due diligence than usually required — that you can trust this recommendation because you trust the person it came from. If they say something it good, it’s probably good, because this person has your best-interest at heart. And, making a good recommendation makes them look good too. It gives them extra social cred.
When that referral client comes to you, they come pre-loaded with trust. They already know you’re the person they want for the job before you’ve even tried to sell your virtues. Half of your trust-building has been done for you. Now all you have to do is meet or exceed that expectation.
With more freelance business experience, usually referrals grow too. You naturally establish a good reputation over time, and slowly grow a list of satisfied clients that refer you to others with little encouragement needed.
However I’ve heard from experienced freelancers who used to get referrals, now saying they’ve suddenly dried up. Or what about recent grads or new entrants to the freelance market who haven’t had the luxury of building a reputation over years?
It’s not magic. There are steps you can follow to accelerate the process of earning referrals, no matter what your experience level. Here’s my recipe.
How do I get more referrals?
If you search for “how do I get more referrals”, you’ll find plenty of scripts that would help you ask for referrals in a very direct way. They might tell you to email your client after a successful project, asking:
“Do you have names of three friends or colleagues that I could reach out to?”
And then you’d send something like this to those new contacts:
“I worked with [CLIENT NAME]. They were really happy with my service and said that you might be interested.”
Some people may have success with this method, but I don’t do it and I’m not aware of anyone else who does. The problem is that it comes across as too desperate. It’s not something that adds to a genuine relationship and interest in your client’s success. Immediately treating your client as a lead-generation tool feels sleazy. That’s not how I want to be remembered by my clients.
So I take a more indirect approach to encouraging referrals. I make myself as “referable” as possible. Then my clients refer me by their own initiative when it suits them best, without me ever having to ask.
Also remember that referrals don’t always come from clients, they can come from colleagues as well. When I’m too busy to take on a new job, I usually get asked if I can recommend someone else. You want to be that someone else.
Being more naturally “referable”
Being referable is a combination of a number of factors. Each is helpful on its own, but their true power comes in doing them all at once. You’ll find they snowball together to create a momentous effect if you complete the entire formula.
1. Establish a great reputation
This is the most important foundation, but also the most difficult step for new freelancers to achieve. The more experience you have freelancing, the easier your reputation will naturally build. So long as you’re doing the right things.
You want to be seen as the best of the best.
Building a reputation is simple. It takes only two thing: excellence and consistency. Be excellent at your craft, and do it consistently for every client and every project. You’ll quickly become known for your quality of work.
2. Be ultra-professional & build trust
Being good at your craft is only half of your job. Running a professional business is the other. The basis of any referral is trust. Your colleagues and clients must trust you enough to put their own reputation on the line by recommending you. You need to be credible enough that they feel elevated to be partnered with you. They need to feel proud to recommend your name, as it reflects back on them.
The way you communicate with your clients and set expectations will be just as memorable to them as the quality of work that you deliver. Be the freelancer they remember because you were so trustworthy, reliable and easy to work with, and your reputation will grow at twice the pace.
I don’t mean the often-ill-advised “underpromise and overdeliver”. I never underpromise. I simply overdeliver, without being asked to.
Surprise your clients with a little something extra now and then. That can either be an added bonus on their project, or a thank you gesture completely unrelated to your creative work.
Maybe you go the extra mile to document a really comprehensive interaction styleguide for your latest UI design project, even though the client didn’t ask for it. Perhaps you deliver a framed print of your client’s new brand identity for them to hang proudly on their wall, as a gesture of your gratitude for a fun project. Or maybe you simply send a holiday card or some surprise chocolates because you know your client is a cocoa lover.
Remind your clients that you’re thinking of them and you have their business’s best interest at heart.
4. Build ongoing relationships
Even if a client is clearly a one-off project and there’s little potential for future work from them, it pays to stay in touch. I do my best to email all of my favourite (or most valuable) clients from time to time, just to check in and ask how their business is going. This is easy, because I don’t take on new clients unless I have a genuine interest in their business. So following up about their plans and successes is a natural step for that kind of relationship.
This follow-up communication may even result in more work directly from your existing clients, which is better than referrals. But even if it doesn’t deliver more work, it keeps you “on their radar” so when the right time arises for a referral, they’ll have you in mind.
5. Your website must back up your personal brand
If your colleagues or satisfied clients do recommend you to one of their contacts, the first thing that new contact will do is google you and check you out. Make sure you are easy to find when they do their due-diligence.
Once they hit your website (or any other online representation of you, like your LinkedIn profile) the messaging they encounter must match the expectations they’ve been given. Make sure there is no inconsistency or disconnect between what your carefully crafted reputation says about you, and what impression your website leaves on them. These touchpoints are all part of your personal brand, and like any other brand, the most important point is consistency in experience.
6. Reciprocate referrals
If you want a colleague or client to recommend you, one great way to encourage this is to recommend them! If you come across any of your own connections or other clients who could benefit from a relationship, help them make that connection with a personal introduction or referral. This is another way of showing your clients that you’re thinking of them, and that gentle reminder will encourage them to do the same for you.
Being a “matchmaker” can be a valuable tool for keeping yourself in your client’s awareness, and in their good graces.
7. Say thanks for referrals
Once you do get a referral, it’s imperative that you show gratitude for it. I make a point of asking every new person who contacts me “where did you hear about me?”. If they say they were referred by someone, I waste no time in contacting that person and thanking them for the referral. A simple email or phone call will do. Even of the referral leads nowhere and I’m not interested in the work it brings, I thank them for it just the same. Some people like to send small gifts, but I don’t feel it’s necessary. A simple thank you note will let them know how much the referral means to you.
Now you’ve built a mighty referral engine
All of these steps done together make it very easy for your colleagues and clients to refer you, without being asked or bribed to do so. And equally important, easy for those referrals to validate your value and feel confident using your services.
I won’t promise this formula will bring you overnight referrals. Like any business strategy, knowing the theory is one thing but successfully implementing it is another. You may have to refine things along the way to build a system that feels right to you. I’d be interested to hear what else you do that may work better.
This is part of playing the long game of freelance business success. If you’re a part-time freelancer side-hustling to make some extra cash, or a temporary freelancer filling “in-between” other employment, this may be too much of a commitment for your casual business endeavour.
If you’re a full time indie business owner looking to make a permanent career out of it, you can’t afford NOT to get referrals. Commit to doing these things for a few years — not just a few weeks or months — and watch your colleagues and clients spread around your good reputation for free. That’s when you hit freelance referral gold.