You’ve heard it before: referrals are “warmer” than a typical lead. They’re the fastest way to grow your new business. Referrals are more receptive to buy and need a shorter sales cycle. We know, we know. Getting clients to refer you is gold.
But how do we encourage referrals in a way that feels natural and non-spammy?
First and foremost: “Do work that warrants being talked about,” says Jessica Manuszak, founder of copywriting studio Verve & Vigour. Nearly all of her clientele comes through referrals. “Asking someone to refer you to their friends is sort of like asking someone to like you. If it doesn’t happen naturally, things can get sleazy and uncomfortable in a hurry.”
Once you’ve established that you are, in fact, doing good work, it’s time to pull from our creative list of ideas that will encourage happy clients to pass along your name.
Here’s how to ask for a referral
Before we jump into that list, know that the first step to getting referrals is to ask. In writing this article, it dawned on me, the Queen of Self-Promotion, that while I always ask clients for testimonials, I never ask for referrals.
But those referrals are more important for growth than testimonials on your website. So go through your client roster, write an email and ask them to refer you. If you want that email to actually result in a referral, read on!
1. Do the heavy lifting for them
Go beyond making it easy for your client to refer you. Actually do the work for them.
I once worked with a coach who I knew my friends would love. When I mentioned this to her, she wrote up her “pitch” for me.
And she didn’t stop there: she also included a gorgeous one-sheeter that explained her services and some copy for social media and a discount code for my friends. All I had to do was forward her email to the right people. I hadn’t thought to share on social media, but since she provided pre-written tweets I figured, why not?
Guess what: She got five new clients from my one email.
To take this approach, write an email to your client as if she’s a potential client. Explain the benefits of your services, how to hire you and any discounts you might offer. Again, all she has to do is forward your email to people who might be a fit. If you have any supporting documents like a sales page, coupon or portfolio, attach it. Include options for sharing on social media if you’re comfortable.
2. Time your request
It’s often thought that the best time to ask for a referral is right after your work is complete. In reality, any time the client gives you compliments is a great time to ask for a referral.
Got good feedback halfway through a client project? Now’s the time to respond, “That’s so nice, thank you! Do you know anyone else who needs an ebook written? I’d love to work with another client just like you.”
You might even ask at the beginning of a project, if you can find a way to do it that feels good to you. Clients tend to be excited when you first begin a project, so look for ways to build on that positive energy.
I once suggested a friend get in touch with a branding agency I was working with, even though I’d only had one meeting with them at that point. My excitement about starting the project was infectious, and a few days later my friend hired them too.
3. Incentivize the referral
While your work should speak for itself, everyone loves a gift! How can you encourage previous clients to do some peddling on your behalf?
You might offer, “I loved writing your sales page. It looks like you’re still going strong, congratulations! I’m back on the freelance circuit and really loved working with you and am keen to find more projects like yours. If you know of any other scuba instructors, please send them my way. For every new client you refer to me, I’ll send you a $50 Amazon gift card.”
For a while, Manuszak of Verve & Vigour offered an affiliate program where anyone could earn credit towards a copywriting package of their choice. Her program was front and center in her website’s navigation, which took pressure off Manuszak to ask individually for referrals.
An affiliate program that’s highlighted on your website might encourage referrals from people you might not have thought to ask.
Incentives can include cash, a small gift, flowers, a charitable donation or a discount on your services. Get creative, or ask clients what sort of reward they would enjoy. I love this tactic in particular because you’re doing double duty: getting advice while planting the idea of referrals.
4. Say “thank you” for referrals
Even if it’s just a quick email, don’t forget to acknowledge referrals when you get them. I haven’t always been thanked for referring clients, and when that acknowledgement was lacking, it put me off a little.
Be thoughtful in thanking clients who refer you. A gorgeous, personalized card will go a long way towards making that referral happen again and again. Bonus points if you call out what you really love about your new client. “Your referral, Cindy, is such a smart businesswoman. I’m so excited to start running her blog, it’s the perfect combination of my skills, and I have you to thank!”
5. Always exceed expectations
This goes hand-in-hand with “doing good work,” but I want to separate out the idea of over-delivering because it involves doing work for free.
When I once launched a new service, I wasn’t entirely sure how it should be structured. Someone hired me before I had the chance to iron everything out, so I gave her an incredibly low rate. Once the work was done, she asked how much it would cost to do another project the next week. I did it for free. When she emailed again asking a few follow-up questions, I didn’t do my usual, “that’s another session, so we’ll need to set up a proper phone call.” I spent a ton of time giving her my best advice.
I wasn’t undervaluing my services or trying to underbid the competition; I was practicing my craft while also building up enormous goodwill with my first-ever client.
Afterwards, she gushed over how generous I was with my time, shared my website on social media, referred me to her friends and left a glowing review. While doing extra (free) work can get you in trouble if you do it too often, if you’re just starting out, going above and beyond without haggling over cost is a great way to leave a client glowing and eager to refer you.
6. Stay in touch
If you ask a client for a referral, they might not know anyone who needs your services just this second, and it’s easy to forget your request. The best way to stay top of mind is to keep talking to them.
You might occasionally check in to see how they’re doing or share a helpful article related to their business. Or you might provide advice and resources through a blog, newsletter or social media. If your old clients subscribe, you’ll be top-of-mind any time a service like yours comes up in conversation.
7. Look beyond clients for referrals
Finally, don’t forget referrals can come from sources besides previous clients. Other writers who can’t take on a project might send clients your way. Or freelancers who don’t cover your niche.
I once had a magical web developer, and we sent each other referrals all the time. Building symbiotic relationships go a long way, and the above tips apply to everyone in your network, not just previous clients.
How do you encourage referrals? Please share your creative tactics in the comments!
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.
Photo via Travelerpix / Shutterstock