When it comes to working as a service professional, whether you’re solo or not, the crux of your business is referrals. Realtors to financial advisors, plumbers to web designers… we all need referrals if we’re going to stay afloat and not lose our heads (or our shirts). Due to the hard-nosed nature of sales, referrals have a bad rep that makes many people feel a little icky. But adapting this sales tactic in ways that work for you can make a big difference in your business.
What’s a client referral?
A referral is a prospective client sent your way, courtesy of someone who knows you. In a traditional sense, you get the name of a prospective client from someone you know, but these days referrals can often mean someone coming to you after your services are recommended to them.
Most often referrals come from our personal connections and from past and current clients. A referral happens spontaneously, ideally without much (if any) work on your part.
One of the unique elements of a referral is a layer of credibility — you generally won’t have as much to prove to this warm prospect as you will to a cold prospect. We all would rather do business with someone we know, or at least someone we know something about, as opposed to a complete stranger. Having a referral sent to you by a mutual contact builds in that credibility and “trust factor” that are so necessary.
Why do referrals matter?
Having a referral pipeline is part of why networking and finding your community of peers and colleagues is so important. When you’ve got an active referral network working for you, it means you’ve got an automated system for bringing work to your desk — and that’s great, because it means you don’t have to channel as much time and energy into marketing yourself.
Not always, but often, referrals are pretty good prospects. You’ve been recommended to them by people who are likely both familiar with your work and prices, and with the referral’s needs and budget. It’s also helpful to have some context for the prospective client, thanks to the person who sent them. If your favorite client recommends you to someone else, there’s a good chance that the prospective client is similarly going to be great to work with. This creates a sense of rapport with the prospective, making this lead a warm one that won’t require as much effort to land. Win!
So how do I get referrals?
Sometimes referrals happen spontaneously, and sometimes you have to ask for them. It’s a good idea to have systems in place to increase the occurrence of both. Here’s what you can do.
Spontaneous referrals are more likely to happen with people in your network, and the best way to set that in motion is to make sure the people around you know what you do. The easiest way to do this, these days, is to mention your work occasionally in your “personal” social media profiles so that people see and remember you, their web designer friend. It’s also a good idea to have a LinkedIn profile set up and active, since it’s not uncommon for folks to go onto LinkedIn, do a keyword search (e.g. “web designer”) and see who in their network has that keyword in their profile. And of course there are one-on-one conversations, but keep any mentions of your work natural — you don’t want to be the weirdo who’s constantly talking about what you do for a living.
You can also find spontaneous referrals happen when you plug into any type of community, especially an online community. If you’re having steady interactions with other copywriters, coaches, graphic designers, photographers, or even folks in your target market, you can position yourself as a go-to web designer simply because you’re top-of-mind. I’ve also received quite a few referrals from other people in my same line of work, when the project just isn’t the right fit. Developing relationships with other successful people doing what you do can be a great source of work.
The other primary way to get referrals is to ask for them. Personally, one of my favorite tactics when asking for referrals involves going to current and past clients, but you can also reach out to your own network.
The idea of approaching someone and asking for a referral can sometimes feel a little icky, so it’s important to stick with what makes the most sense for you. I’ve found that it’s really not too difficult to request referrals from clients using a “soft ask” in my “final touch” on a project. I will often include a line on my invoice or the final email, something along the lines of this:
Do you know of anyone else who could use my help? If you’ve been happy with my work, please pass along my information. Referrals make the world go ‘round!
It’s astonishing, but it often just doesn’t occur to people to refer your services to their own connections. Simply asking for a referral in this non-confrontive manner can set that in motion.
Similarly, I’ll put out a call to my network when I’m looking for more clients. I do this with a pretty “soft ask,” too — maybe with a social media status update saying something along the lines of “I’ve got a special spot on my calendar for one new web design client. If you or someone you know needs a rockstar website, let’s get in touch!” By asking my own connections for referrals in this less direct manner, I’ve been able to add clients to my roster that I otherwise wouldn’t have found, meet the needs of someone else who needed my help, and develop a more positive relationship with my original contact. Wins all around!
What’s your biggest hang-up when it comes to asking for a referral?