Referrals are to freelancing what subscriptions are to eCommerce: the holy grail. Referred clients trust you more, their projects have a running start, and they’re the quickest way to expand your network.
This post will discuss the value of client referrals and how to use them to fill your freelancer and project pipeline, including some helpful tips to make a lasting impression and have the work come to you.
Why client referrals are so important
Referrals are the gold standard for freelancers. When someone refers you to a potential client, you enjoy the benefits of trust by association, can close deals more quickly, generate additional referrals, and more.
1) Trust by association
Trust is essential for any collaborative project, but it’s difficult to build from scratch. When you gain a new client through a referral, they also extend a bit of their trust in the person who vouched for you.
Recommendations make trust transferable, and because you gain trust by association, you don’t have to spend as much time and energy winning over the client.
Your new client has faith in the judgment of the person who referred you, so they already believe you’re skilled and capable.
All that’s left for you to do is prove their trust is well-placed by delivering high-quality work.
2) Faster project cycles
Referred clients are also more likely to be a good fit for you and your services. You don’t need to vet referred clients in the same way as a random lead to ensure you offer the right solution; they come pre-approved.
With trust already established in both parties, you can hit the ground running and dive right into the project. There’s little to no time wasted selling yourself, convincing the client, researching whether the client has a bad history with freelancers, or dancing around the project.
All of this results in faster project cycles. The more efficient your vetting and collaboration process is, the faster you’ll close deals, and the more time you can devote to work.
Think of it as a flywheel effect where you establish a base level of trust at the onset, give and gather honest feedback, and improve your skills for clients across the board.
2) The referral flywheel effect
Let’s go back to the idea of a flywheel. The concept here is you build a process or “machine” that takes some effort to get going initially, but becomes faster with less effort once it’s up and running.
That’s what it’s like with referrals. 90% of the clients I work with today (most of whom are long-term contracts — some since 2014) came referred. A previous manager connected us, an old coworker at a new job reached out, or I had worked with them before on behalf of another client.
The more referrals I received, the better I was able to close deals and work with new clients. As I worked with more clients, I expanded my network, collaborated with new teams (internally and externally), and developed my skills. All of this began with a spark in the form of a referral.
4) Keep your project pipeline full
Since referrals inadvertently create more referrals, it means more work coming your way. Momentum builds as you establish your reputation over time. A bank of satisfied clients will refer you to others and generate more work. This has the potential to reduce your marketing overheads; the work will come to you as you passively generate more leads.
Increasing your client list through referrals also means your clients are inter-connected, creating opportunities for more collaborative work and creating a higher chance that your name will come up in casual conversation among colleagues and friends.
I’ve connected multiple eCommerce companies’ marketing teams to collaborate (e.g., speak on each others’ podcasts, do a guest post exchange, speak on webinars), even without myself or my clients being in the picture. It’s helped others build their networks, and as a nice side effect, many of those connections come back and ask to work together again.
5) Pick your challenges
The more clients you have in your pipeline, the more choice you have to work with brands you truly respect and admire. You can also choose your challenges, as some clients will bring more interesting problems to solve.
If you want to develop your product marketing skills, you can begin taking on clients that need help with that. If you’re most interested in growth marketing, you can fashion a project around conversion optimization for a client’s website.
A full pipeline and list of referrals lets you find the most interesting challenges to tackle with the brands you’re most eager to work with.
With all of these factors working together, you can turn down (or refer elsewhere) clients and projects that aren’t a good fit.
6) Raise your rates
Finally, referrals help freelancers raise their rates. The more highly recommended you come, the more you can justify charging, because you have third-party confirmation that you deliver excellent work.
Tip: Ask for client testimonials and sprinkle them into your project proposals. I have a testimonial bank with a running list of my public and private recommendations (with permission to share). When I send out a new proposal, I look through the companies that recommended me to find who’s in the same industry, who the potential new client might recognize, and which ones refer to the type of work the proposal covers.
How to earn more client referrals
Now we can agree referrals are the way to go, but how do you get them? Gaining work through referrals is a long game that takes patience and a variety of methods. Follow the tips below to help you establish your reputation and encourage new work to come to you.
1) Schedule check-ins
Hold annual or quarterly check-ins with clients to check in and see how you’re doing. For project-based clients, consider requesting reviews and testimonials following the completion of a project.
This is a good opportunity to ask what they like and don’t like about working with you. This opens the door for more referral opportunities and keeps you at the front of the client’s mind.
If you get a positive review, let the client know you’re open to more work, and ask if they know anyone who;s a good fit to collaborate.
If it’s a lukewarm response, fix the pain points and then let them know how you addressed it. This inspires confidence and opens up the channel for a referral the next time you chat.
Tip: If you’re not sure how to ask for a referral during your check-in, say you’ve enjoyed working with them and ask if they have any contacts who might also benefit from your services. Make it easy for them by providing a place to send referrals, like your email, website, or LinkedIn page.
2) Under-promise, over-deliver
Let your work speak for you, and leave a lasting impression on everyone you work with.
Make a commitment to consistently deliver a high standard of work. Treat every project and client with care and professionalism. Deliver projects on time and communicate effectively. This includes agreeing to project expectations up front and communicating throughout it, as well as a smooth and clear handover to wrap it up.
And if things don’t go according to plan? Most people are generous and understanding if something goes awry; stay calm, pinpoint the problem, come up with a few possible solutions, and tell the client what you’re going to do to fix it. Effective communication is a key difference between an in-demand professional and an unreliable freelancer who’s unlikely to be invited back or referred to others.
Once you’ve established a pattern of reliability, make a strong impression by going the extra mile without being asked. Small suggestions can make a big improvement for the client with little impact on your time. If you see a way to improve on the original project brief and over-deliver, call it out and execute.
Tip: Don’t push for a referral out of the blue. A good rule of thumb is to deliver value before asking for a favor. Appropriate times to ask for referrals would be at the end of a project, when a repeat client comes back for more work, or following praise or positive feedback from a satisfied client.
3) Nurture your relationships
This point covers your referrers, the potential clients they send you to, and your current clients.
Update and thank your referrer whether or not you close the deal. You can send a small gift or card thanking them for the referral and briefing them on how it went. Even a quick email with a few heartfelt words showing you appreciate the gesture will be well received (and hopefully remembered for next time).
Build your relationship with potential clients and check in with them. This will keep you at the front of a client’s mind if a work opportunity comes up (either internally or for another referral).
If you haven’t heard from a client in a while, drop them a note to ask how business is going – and be sure to add relevant praise if you can (i.e., “I really enjoyed yesterday’s post,” or, “Your new product launch looks great!”).
Finally, leverage the reciprocity effect. Don’t limit social media to self-promotion. Comment and share others’ posts to put you front of mind and inspire reciprocity. We all want to give back to people who’ve done something nice for us, and that can start as small as leaving a positive comment on someone’s post.
4) Build a specialized portfolio
An online portfolio gives referrers an easy way to reference your work. They can mention, “I know a contractor who can do X, here’s their website,” and allow your site to speak for you.
Make sure your online presence accurately and positively reflects your work. Potential new clients will check you out before getting in touch. If they already have a positive impression from a referral, your online presence can reaffirm that perception and close the deal.
If you’re just starting out, focus on creating a simple, professional website describing your services and featuring a few case studies. For example, you could have a section of your website dedicated to successful past projects and testimonials from happy clients.
5) Don’t limit yourself to business referrals
Referrals don’t always come from business – sometimes they come from other freelancers. I’ve often sent overflow work to other freelancers when I didn’t have the capacity to take it on myself.
In turn, if a colleague or fellow freelancer in your network is too busy to take on a project, or the project falls outside their area of expertise, they may recommend you.
Freelancing can be a lonely business, but don’t fall prey to the misconception that freelancers are in competition with each other. Freelance communities often step in to replace the stereotypical “watercooler chat” of traditional businesses. They’re a place for building relationships, celebrating each other’s successes, socializing, and helping each other through the unique challenges freelancing presents (like being your own boss, accountant, and IT whiz at the same time).
Expand your network and look into collaborative projects and exchanges with freelancers in other disciplines. For example, if you’re a website designer, you could keep an eye out for a writer to assist with content, ensuring you can offer a quality, full-service delivery for your next client.
Where to find other freelancers? Good places to network include events, workshops, seminars, online groups, conferences, and shared co-working spaces.
6) Provide rewards for successful referrals
Everyone loves a bargain. Consider offering incentives, like a discount or freebie for every successful referral.
For example, you might say, “I just closed a deal with X company. As a thanks for referring them, I’m comping your next article. Please feel free to send more referrals my way if you think they’d be a good fit!”
This will enhance your reputation for going above and beyond by delivering added value as well as high-quality work.
7) Offer loyalty rates
The longer you work with a client, the more familiar you become with their voice, tone, style, and process. Continuing relationships helps to surface hidden knowledge effortlessly. No asking, “Where can I find this?” or “Does this make sense to publish?” Instead, you know the answers to those questions intuitively.
This helps you produce better work more efficiently. It’s also a good reason to offer special rates to loyal clients, and earn a few referrals in the process.
Implement a loyalty program where older clients can access your original rates if they refer you to at least two other contracts you close. You give your best clients a nice reward for working with you, while filling your pipeline with more referrals and revenue at the same time.
This comes in handy when it’s time to raise rates and you have clients you like who can’t afford the boost.
3-Point business development checklist to grow your referrals
Here’s a quick three-point checklist you can use with every client to help you grow your referrals and fill your pipeline:
- Ask for permission to include any work done in your portfolio
- Ask for a review of your work on LinkedIn or your own website
- Request a referral to at least one other business they think could benefit from your services
Wrapping up — How to use client referrals to fill your project pipeline
As the world becomes increasingly digital, human connections matter and stay with us. Delivering high-quality work paired with thoughtful touches will make a lasting impression on your clients, and ensure your name is the first that comes to mind when they want to introduce a new lead.