Unlocking client referrals: 10 effective and simple strategies for freelancers

As a freelancer, building your base of clients is a vital skill set. 

Where do you get clients, and how do you ensure that you’re establishing a reputation that will allow you to continue to build your business? One of the greatest resources for continued business is already at your fingertips, you need only to know how to leverage them effectively.

Client referrals are an incredible resource. Between continuing business from existing clients and recommendations for new and potential clients, making use of your existing network and asking for referrals is one of the backbones of a freelancer’s ongoing success.

Referrals naturally help freelancers to win projects more easily, thanks to the backing of a past client who can vouch for their skills and proven results. Reaching out to previous clients and asking for repeat business as well is another often untapped resource for freelancers. 

Let’s address some simple ways to gather referrals, build your book of clients, and keep your freelancing business booked and successful.

1. Have a referral script

Undeniably, no matter how skilled a freelancer or consultant may be, some of us simply aren’t at our best when it comes to sales. Asking for business directly, or for someone to recommend us to their network or colleagues can feel a bit awkward. You can avoid this by having a referral strategy and script already in mind when you reach out to ask for business. As with any sales pitch, you’ll need to know when, how, and who to ask for referrals, keep at it regularly, and fine-tune your script to see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t give up if it starts out a bit bumpy on the first few attempts. This is an important aspect of your business so you’ll need to stick with it to get results.

2. Know who to ask

Not every previous client is an ideal candidate for a referral request. Difficult client? Might not be the best person to ask for more business. Project parameters that were not the best fit for you or your skillset? They may not be able to accurately describe your strengths. Think about the projects you enjoyed, felt good about, and were proud of your results. This positive feeling can be rolled right into your request for more business.

Leverage those opportunities where you felt you performed your best to your advantage.

Reach out to the liaison or department contact you worked with and ask for their feedback, then ask for referrals.

3. Know when to ask

Asking for a referral after a tense or drawn-out project, even one that ultimately had good results isn’t a great plan. Asking for a referral too early in a relationship with a client isn’t ideal either. So when should you ask for a referral?

Building trust and a good rapport with your clients can take an undefinable amount of time depending on your industry, the personalities involved, and the types and number of projects you’ve completed for the client. However, when you feel that the relationship overall is solid and you’ve completed quality work with great results for a client, it’s a good time to leverage that relationship. Too soon, and a client may be apprehensive about putting their own reputation on the line by recommending you. 

4. Specialisation is your friend

As with many other aspects of freelancing and consulting, the more specialised your business is, the more likely you are to be a perfect fit for specific clients. Having a niche makes you and your business more referable as your specialised skills will be in demand for others within your chosen industry, and making use of your clients’ contacts within that industry is a no-brainer.

Networking within your niche allows you to reach out for referrals that are most likely to be a good match. For pointers on specialisation and how to focus your offering, see our article on specialisation here.

5. Be open about your desire for referrals and the word of mouth approach to your business building strategy

Don’t be afraid to let your friends, colleagues, business associates, prior associates, and others in your network know that you are always looking for referrals. Remember, when using this method, you’re getting more than your business recommended to potential clients: you’re getting vetted clients recommended to you via your network as well. 

Not every referral will be from a prior client. Perhaps before you moved to freelancing or consulting you worked in an office with someone who knows you, values your skills, and would recommend your expertise to someone else. Make use of these connections as well to maximize your reach.

6. Put the focus on the benefits to your client

Rather than making your need for additional business the focus of your request, couch your ask as a potential benefit for your client. Do they know anyone who could benefit from your expertise? You offer consultations as part of your commitment to your existing clientele. Expressing the request this way creates more of an air that you are adding additional levels of support to them by offering your services to their friends, family, or colleagues.  

7. Include your request in correspondence

Another very simple and effective way to ask for referrals is to include a link or referral request, smartly worded, as part of your email signature in professional correspondence or at the bottom of your invoices.

This strategy makes the ask easy, commonplace and takes some of the “high pressure” feeling of the actual ask off. When you include the request this way, you’re acclimating clients to the idea that you’re always open to additional business, and keeping the communication channels open.

8. Offer incentives

In an increasingly busy world, oftentimes the easiest way to grab someone’s attention is to immediately answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” A quick and easy way to gather additional business is to incentivise referrals. Offer your current clients a discount on their services or future business when they make referrals, or some other form of showing gratification. You may offer to give a no-cost consultation to their friends, family members, or other business associates that they refer to you that are also seeking your services. This can prove especially motivating to financial consultants. Make sure your client base knows about your incentive programs.

9. Be active on social platforms

Social platforms like LinkedIn are an excellent networking source for making introductions and asking for referrals. With freelancing and consulting businesses in particular, many of your existing and potential clients are primarily digital, so making use of virtual sites for “gathering” is the new “networking event.” Used in combination with some of the above strategies, you can fine tune your referral requests, contact previous clients, or ask for introductions. 

10. Schedule follow ups and thank clients for their business

Make a habit of reaching out periodically to prior clients thanking them for their previous business and asking if there is anything else you can do for them every 3, 6, or 12 months.

This is also an opportunity to ask them if they know anyone else who would benefit from your expertise and skills, or ask them if they would like to submit a review or recommendation for your website. Doing so helps to continue establishing your reputation and is also good business manners!