The Fine Art of Asking for a Referral
By Jena Kroeker
For some of us, the idea of asking for a referral conjures up the same feelings as networking. Feelings like “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole” or “Please let there be another way to find clients.”
But never fear. Just as there are many different types of personalities and freelance niches, there are many different ways to ask for a referral. You can tailor your referral system to match you and your unique virtual business.
In our Referral Marketing Success Course, co-founder and instructor Craig Cannings discusses two types of referrals: indirect and direct. Indirect referrals include Facebook Page Recommendations, LinkedIn Recommendations, Website Testimonials, and Video Case Studies. Direct referrals involve someone directly passing your name on to another relevant contact either in person or through an email, phone call, or social media message.
The Value of a Referral
I owe my entire freelance journey to a referral. Almost 20 years ago, I moved to a new city and started applying for jobs. One referral from a former colleague looked promising but didn’t work out. I had also applied for two other local positions and was waiting for a response.
Then the phone call came that changed my life. My father worked in the television industry and had met the owner of a closed captioning company looking for people to work from home, transcribing the dialogue and sound effects for TV shows. My father thought of me immediately and called to ask if I’d be interested in that type of work so he could recommend me to the company.
Now, the question is, why did he think of me? When I break it down, the referral happened because of several things my father knew about me:
• My education: The company was looking for someone with a linguistics degree.
• My background in piano: The machine shorthand equipment (a steno machine that court reporters use) was more easily learned by someone who had previously played the piano.
• My desire for a flexible lifestyle: My father knew I enjoyed volunteering for non-profit organizations, and he saw freelancing as flexible work that would allow me to continue doing the things I enjoyed.
• My strong work ethic: I had previously worked alongside my father as a TV assistant, so he knew I was a self-motivated, hard worker. He was confident both the client and I would benefit from working together.
That sounds like a lot for someone to know about! But in the course of time, our existing clients can learn similar things about us. And our inner circle of friends and family (and even our acquaintances and colleagues) can learn enough about us to recommend our services to wonderful clients.
In his article, “How to get more freelance clients by becoming ‘referable,’” Benek Lisefski says that the deeper reason to encourage referrals is because “referral clients trust you more.” He describes the value of referrals this way:
“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.”
And when the referral client respects the person who referred you, even more of that trust will come pre-loaded. The quality of your referrals begins with the quality of the people you associate with. The clients you work with should be a reflection of the referrals you want to work with. The boundaries or lack of boundaries you have with them are likely the same sorts of boundaries or lack of boundaries their referrals will expect.
When to Start Asking for a Referral
Now comes the part that makes some of us break into a cold sweat. When do we start asking for a referral, and how do we do it?
1. Don’t ask. Just be.
You may like the first answer. In the article above, Benek Lisefski says he takes a more indirect approach by making himself as “referable as possible” so his clients use their own initiative to refer him when it best suits them, rather than him having to ask for a referral.
So, one method is to begin by making yourself someone people want to refer! In a previous FreeU blog post, “How to Find Ideal Clients (in Your Own Backyard),” we describe our local network as a series of circles. The inner circle is the people you know best (family and friends), and the middle circles are colleagues and acquaintances. Whether or not these people need your services, they can refer you to potential clients if they think favorably of you. You can boost their opinion of you by maintaining healthy relationships with past and present colleagues, and lovingly supporting your family and friends in their own endeavors.
In the same way, you can encourage referrals from existing clients by doing the best work you can and maintaining a healthy client relationship with them. Remember the quality of the referral will reflect on them too.
2. Choose the right time to ask.
Sometimes you need to take a deep breath, swallow your pride if necessary, and simply ask for a referral. Even if you’re delivering stellar work to your clients, they may not know you’d like to be referred until you ask them.
Megan Taylor’s article “5 tips to asking for referrals (and a sample referral email),” provides some helpful guidelines for timing your request, depending on whether you’re doing one-off projects or long-term projects and retainer agreements. She advises waiting to ask for a referral until after the client has given their final sign-off if you’re doing a one-off project like a brand redesign or content for an eBook.
And if you’re doing ongoing work as part of a retainer agreement or long-term project, she suggests using your gut feeling and checking in with your client for feedback. Then “ask once you know you’ve provided unparalleled value.” At the same time, she warns against asking for a referral in your freelance invoice.
How to Ask for a Referral
As mentioned above, you can choose the referral request method that works best for you, your clients, and your local network. Here are some options:
1. Contact past or present clients directly.
Here’s where we could use the Nike slogan “Just do it.” Once you’ve decided on the correct time to ask, contact your existing or former clients in a way that most resonates with them:
• Personalized email
• Phone call
• Zoom or Skype video call
• Social media message
• Whatever is most appropriate for your relationship.
Susan Ward recommends asking face to face in her article, “How to Ask for Referrals and Get More Clients.” She says, “People will always be more likely to do something for someone else if the person is standing right in front of them.” But she adds, “It is acceptable to ask for referrals by email or phone if you work under conditions where face-to-face meetings are uncommon or very difficult.” In this case, a Zoom or Skype video call could serve as an in-person meeting.
2. Ask for a testimonial or video case study.
An indirect way of asking for a referral is to ask for testimonials or video case studies that you can post on your website and share on social media. The article above has some wise advice if you don’t want to directly ask for a referral:
“Ask for a testimonial instead. That way you still have something you can use on your website or in your marketing materials… plus you’ll get your client thinking about what a great job you did.”
They might even offer a referral on their own!”
3. Offer incentives.
In the Referral Marketing Success Course, Craig Cannings suggests five types of incentives you can offer in exchange for referrals:
• Referral fee (e.g. $50 – $100 value)
• Service credit (e.g. a specific number or hours or monetary value credited toward future services)
• Service discount (e.g. 5-10% discount off existing or future services)
• E-Gift card or other Gifts (e.g. $50 – $100 online Amazon gift card)
• Free training or resources (e.g. courses, training, or eBooks provided at no charge)
At the same time, he outlines the pros and cons. On one hand, incentives offer both clients and non-clients a tangible motivator and make it easier to ask for referrals. On the other hand, they can make the referral seem less natural and authentic. They can also devalue the referral if the potential client finds out that referrer received an incentive. So, be sure that incentives are right for your business before using them.
4. Ask for LinkedIn Recommendations.
LinkedIn provides an option to ask connections whether they’re willing to write a recommendation of your work. Simply navigate to the profile of a 1st-degree connection, click the “More” button, and select “Request a recommendation.” Once the connection has written it, you can display this recommendation on your LinkedIn profile.
In an article titled “How to Ask For The All Important LinkedIn Recommendation,” JoAnne Funch suggests requesting a recommendation immediately after you complete a service. She also advises personalizing the request:
“It is important that you NEVER send the default request for recommendation. This doesn’t help you and you are not helping the person you are asking to take their time to recommend you. Your goal is to make it easy for the person you are asking to respond in a timely manner. In your request write a sentence or two about the service they purchased, and the results they gained from your service and benefits of working with you.”
Robin Ryan suggest another strategy in her article “How To Get Valuable LinkedIn Recommendations And Endorsements.” Instead of requesting the recommendation, she suggests first writing a recommendation for your connection. The LinkedIn system will notify them and ask if they’d like to write a recommendation for you in return. She then suggests writing your connection a personalized email and letting them know what you’d like them to discuss in their recommendation for you.
5. Activate Facebook Recommendations (formerly Facebook Reviews).
Another effective way of indirectly asking for a referral is to turn Recommendations on for your Facebook Page. By doing so, anyone who’s logged into Facebook can see your Page’s rating, see other Recommendations that were shared with a Public privacy setting, and publish their own Recommendations to your Page.
According to the Facebook for Business site, these Recommendations are also discoverable across the Facebook platform when people are searching for your business or talking about it. It’s easy for people to leave a recommendation by answering “Yes” or “No” and choosing text, photos, or tags to explain why they’re recommending it.
In her article, “Creating an online review management strategy,” Jenn Chen stresses the need to identify which social networks you’re going to focus on and then respond to both negative and positive reviews. She says,
“To find the most opportune networks for your reviews, it may be best to set up a social media listening strategy that will bring up online chatter about your business. If you start seeing more reviews from one network, maybe it’ll be time to join it. Plus, with listening you’ll be able to find other sources of valuable feedback about your business across social networks.”
What If You Receive a Referral that Doesn’t Feel Right?
Referrals are like blind dates. Sometimes you meet the person and know that despite everyone’s good intentions, this client relationship is not going to work. Although you don’t want to miss valuable opportunities, it’s important to steer away from accepting referrals that are not good for your business. Focus on developing your intuition to determine whether a certain referral is a good fit and have a clear picture of your ideal client.
Here are some ways you can accept the best referrals for you and your business:
1. Define yourself and your services clearly.
Word-of-mouth referrals for freelancers are sometimes like the game of telephone, where the information gets confused and changed along the way. People can become frustrated if they find out you don’t do what the referrer said you did. And if you change your niche, be clear about what your new niche is so you don’t disappoint people who think you still do the previous work.
2. Listen to your gut.
Learn how to say no gracefully, and don’t say yes to something that doesn’t feel right. Keep a list of other quality freelancers you can refer if the task is too far outside your niche. If I receive a referral that isn’t right for me, I often recommend one of my colleagues, LinkedIn connections, or freelancers listed in the Freelance University professional directory.
I’m forever grateful for the referral I received that launched my freelance journey. Although it can be nerve-wracking to ask for them, referrals are a crucial part of building a business with high-quality clients. Choose the method that works best for you, and wholeheartedly thank your referrers. As Leah Kalamakis says in her article “10 Ways To Get More Referrals,”
“Tell them how much you enjoyed the client they sent your way and how much you appreciate them for making it happen. When they feel appreciated, they will likely want to continue sending more.”
And now we’d love to hear from you! Have you received business as a result of referrals? Which method of asking for referrals works best for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.