Freelancers: Here’s How To Ask For Referrals The Right Way

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Studies are already predicting a surge in demand for freelancing over the next few years, and the pandemic already has a lot of people either considering making the move to freelance or adding freelancing on top of their full-time jobs. But with more people considering freelancing, a key question comes to light: how to ask for referrals. A lot of freelance hiring is still based on personal recommendations, so getting someone to refer business to you is a critical growth strategy for the long term.

What is a referral and how can it help your freelance business?

A referral is when someone else, like a previous client, introduces a new customer to you. This saves you time and resources having to look for clients yourself, as you’re having someone else effectively do the work for you. 

Why referrals matter

Referrals – or lack thereof – can reveal a lot of valuable information about your business. Here is why they matter:

Revenue: Some people referred in could present you with huge projects, consistent business, or further referrals. 

Credibility: If someone goes out of their way to recommend you to someone else in their circle, it builds more trust automatically.

Referrals are low effort sales: Instead of you having to chase clients yourself, you’re having someone else do it for you. 

Referrals usually mean someone has a clear need: Referrals usually come from someone else talking about a problem, and people thinking you might be the solution. 

What makes a good referral?

Not all referrals are clients you want to take on. Here are some signs to keep in mind when you’re looking at who fits:

Your ideal customer: If you exclusively help startups, you don’t necessarily want an introduction to government. . 

Budget: They have to be someone who is able to meet your price range and reliably pay you.

Able to solve their problem: Make sure the scope of their problem is something you’re able to cover. Freelancers are hired to execute, so make sure you can do the job at hand.

What’s the difference between referrals and affiliates?

Similar to referrals, affiliates rely on bringing in new customers through word of mouth. The difference is you usually know someone providing you a referral. Affiliates, on the other hand, typically come from a network or marketplace platform. There, you pay affiliates to send you clients, keeping track via a custom URL link or something similar. 

Affiliates offer great potential, but they tend to be a better fit for products like books or software rather than freelance services. 

Who should I ask for referrals?

Clients: These are often your best source as they already have a built-in business relationship with you, and can vouch for the quality of your work. In other words, they know what you’re capable of.

Fellow freelancers: Freelancers in other fields likely have access to a network of clients you might not otherwise have access to. 

Your network: You never know who might need your help, and it could be as easy as asking anyone you already know. It never hurts to try, and the least you can do is let others know that you’re offering a service. 

Important facts to know before asking for referrals

When it comes to asking for referrals, the process isn’t really that difficult. But you should be aware of a few key things:

Know what you want from each person

Each person you may ask for a referral has a different set of potential networks, and preparing for that beforehand can help you with narrowing down the point you want to sell. If you know where the person is coming from, it makes it much easier to lead into asking them for a referral. 

Focus on value first

Another important thing is to offer help and value to people before you ask for a referral or favour in return. It’s not just about you, after all.

Build relationships

You don’t have to become best friends, but relationships matter in business, and that can make all the difference in making the most out of it.

How do you politely ask for referrals?

Politeness doesn’t just mean having manners and sounding pleasant. It also means you’ve done the necessary preparation beforehand. You recognize why this person is the right person to ask for a referral – not just that they are powerful or well connected. 

A few more things to consider when politely asking for a referral:

  • Your ask is clear to understand, and you state what you want
  • You make it easy for them them to take action and understand 
  • Following up and showing gratitude when someone sends you a referral  (regardless of whether you close the client)

Unsustainable ways to ask for referrals

Although we’ve been talking a lot about the right way to do referrals, there are still a lot of pitfalls you should be aware of. Here are some of the least sustainable ways to ask for referrals.

Pay people

When you pay people to send you clients, it turns relationships into a transaction – the wrong way to go. These kinds of relationships are usually only motivated by earnings, and it becomes less about helping each other.

Setting up referral systems like affiliate programs can also be annoying to implement. Here’s how the process usually goes:

  1. You set them up as contractors in your accounting system. 
  2. You pay them. 
  3. You pay any additional fees.
  4. You issue them tax statements each year.

That’s a whole lot of effort going into work you shouldn’t have to focus on.

Asking too frequently

We’ve all been bothered by someone who doesn’t know when to quit. Sure, perseverance can pay, but not when you’re someone who keeps asking for referrals.

When you ask too frequently, people are going to want to avoid you, and are surely not going to recommend you. There’s a right way to ask for referrals, and it’s important that you not overdo it. 

Asking with a sense of entitlement

If you think about how to ask for referrals properly, just think back to the time someone asked you for a favor – and expected you to do it for them no matter what. If that annoyed you, then you know why asking for referrals with a sense of entitlement is a bad idea. Not only will you not get your referral, but it might motivate people to recommend others to avoid you.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is different from when you have a partnership contract, and you’ve held up your end of the bargain. 

Not treating referred-in prospects well

When someone refers a prospect to you, it’s usually someone in their personal network. Always be mindful that people like to talk, and if you treat that person poorly, they’re likely going to share negative experiences with the original person who made the referral. 

This will look bad on the person who made the referral and in most cases they’ll be far less likely to give you another one. 

The best ways to ask for referrals

When you ask for a referral the right way it can lead to a number of benefits.

  • Sustainable relationships
  • Opportunities with potential for growth
  • Victories for everybody involved – you get a client, the person referring you wins more credibility and the person referred in gets their problem solved.

To help you with getting closer to achieving this, here are some of the best ways to ask for referrals.

Make your clients the hero

Instead of directly asking for a referral, try framing it in a way of offering help. 

For example:

“I’m an audio engineer! If you know any artists who need some help with mastering work on their demos, I’d be happy to help!”

This looks much more approachable than:

“I’m starting my business as an audio engineer, can you help me find customers?”

When you frame responses the first way, it makes it so the person referring you is helping someone else solve their problem by introducing you to them.

Let your network know about your work

Whenever it’s suitable, don’t be afraid to share your one-liner with others, links where people can find you on social media, and examples of your previous work. 

This, at the very least, will let people know about the kind of work you offer, and that you can be an option for them when they have a problem related to your field of work.

Sharing with the world (the right way)

As freelancers, always look for ways where you can give yourself an outlet to provide help. For example, lets take your one liner and adapt it to different scenarios you might encounter on social media

In this example, let’s say you are a freelance app developer and you help companies build intuitive user interfaces (UI):

  • Sharing your opinion: “As an app developer who focuses on simplistic UI, this is what works for me…”
  • Introducing yourself: “Hi! I’m Ben, an app developer who helps people design more simplistic app interfaces…”
  • Responding to calls for help or references: “If I may put my hat in the ring, I’m an app developer who helps people with designing more simple UI.” 

When you put yourself out there like this, it becomes less about asking for a referral, and more about making it easy for people to call on you for help. Although you might not see immediate results, at the very least, people will know they have someone in their network to consider as a solution to problems they might encounter down the line.

Leverage people you meet at industry events

Whether in person or virtual, events are always a valuable resource for networking.

Keep that same one-liner script you wrote for social media handy. This sort of script works wonders when you’re introducing yourself to others. 

You may find you need to rewrite it for conversational use, but the general gist of it will work just as effectively when you deliver it in person. Don’t be afraid to rehearse the one liner in front of a mirror or a roommate either.

Build an inbound funnel for your business

A lot of referral basics also apply to building an effective inbound funnel. Starting one up may help you consider the following:

  • Trying new communities: you never know where you might find new clients. Try posting on smaller subreddit communities, or forums dedicated to your field. At the very least, you can become a member of the community and share advice with similar minded people. 
  • Building partnerships: provide those who are consistently referring you with benefits such as discounts for their network. 

Join a referral network or freelance jobs website

Sometimes it’s difficult to get partnerships set up early on. We don’t all have the luxury of large networks, and figuring out where to start can be overwhelming. Don’t have a big network? An effective alternative to manually setting up partnerships is joining niche freelance and network sites that can help set you up with more work. 

An example I’ve used in the past is SoundBetter. The platform allowed me to offer my work as a music producer, and connected me with genre-specific clients who needed mixing work on their music. I got to pick and choose the jobs I wanted to pursue, and there was no pressure taking on every job they came to me with. 

If you’re working in a different field, there’s probably a freelancing network site for it. Check out this guide to the best freelancing sites for finding new work.

Referrals are the bedrock of a growing business

Referrals offer you some of the best tools you can use to grow your business. They allow you to focus on growth, reveal to you which clients you should prioritize, and make the process of running your freelance business a whole lot more enjoyable. As a result, every freelancer should be thinking about how to increase referral business. Just make sure you’re doing it the right way!

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