How to Build a Winning Client Referral Program

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Building Referral Program

Imagine you’re looking for a new mechanic. Since you’re pretty clueless when it comes to cars, you need someone who’s extremely trustworthy.

Searching online turns up four candidates. Then you ask your friend for their suggestion, and they say, “Oh, I go to Pete at Evanston Auto Repair. He’s the best.”

Which mechanic will you go with: one of the four you found via Google, or Pete?

Almost everyone would go with Pete. According to Nielsen, 83% of people trust recommendations from their friends and family. That makes referrals the most credible form of advertising by a long shot.

As a freelancer, getting a referral every once in a while can lead to some great business. But you shouldn’t leave this incredibly profitable business development channel up to chance. By building a customer referral program, you can consistently acquire new, qualified leads.

How to Build a Client Referral Program

Here are the steps you can follow to start getting for referrals.

1. Calculate How Many Referrals You Need

Before you start asking all of your customers for referrals, figure out how many clients you can actually handle.

It’s easiest if you start with your current workload. The way you quantify this will depend on how you structure your business. For instance, during an average month, do you complete five projects? Work 230 hours? Help seven clients?

Once you know this number, ask yourself whether you could handle more—and if so, how much. Maybe you currently finish five projects but are capable of seven. Or maybe five is your limit.

Having a sense for your max capacity helps you gauge your referral target. To give you an idea, if working with one more customer each month would put you at the limit, you might only request a couple referrals per year.

2. Develop a Strategy

Winging your referral system is like showing up to dinner at a five-star restaurant completely stuffed. You’ve got a great opportunity—don’t waste it.

First, decide whether you’ll give rewards to customers who refer you. For example, you might give clients 20% of their purchase if their referee ends up becoming a client. Or perhaps you throw in an extra hour of work for anyone who introduces you to a potential customer, regardless of the outcome.

Rewards can be a great way to incentivize people to make referrals. However, they may lead to “bad fit” customers. You never know if you’re being connected to someone who could truly use your services, or your customer is just trying to score a freebie.

On a related note, the next step is figuring out who your ideal client is. Some freelancers will say their ideal client “pays quickly,” “doesn’t make crazy requests,” “respects the project parameters,” and so on.

Everyone likes those qualities in a client. Your ideal client should be much more specific. What industry are they in? How big is their company? What type of role are they in? What’s their product? Do they need you on retainer, for a single project, or for a series of jobs?

Knowing these details makes it far easier to request referrals. Instead of saying, “Do you know anyone who might need [insert your product here]?” you can say, “Do you know any designers who work at tech startups and need [insert your product here]?”

Related reading: How to Evaluate Prospective Clients and Choose the Best Ones

3. Choose When You’ll Ask

There are multiple times during a customer’s life cycle when it’s appropriate to ask for a referral.

  • In the middle of a project, after they’ve just given you positive feedback
  • At the end of the project, when they’re discussing the great job you’ve done
  • When they sign on for another project or renew your project
  • A couple weeks ago you’ve completed your work for them

Just make sure you choose one of these scenarios—not all. Asking a customer multiple times will almost never improve the odds they’ll say yes.

It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to ask every client at the same point in their relationship with you. Maybe one of your clients is absolutely thrilled with the mock-ups you created for them, so you ask them for a referral before they’ve ever seen the final design. Yet another client has a lukewarm reaction to the mock-ups, and you decide to wait until their new website has gone live to broach the topic.

4. Make the Referral Process as Easy as Possible

You might think asking for referrals will make you look self-serving or greedy, but that’s not the case. Assuming you’ve done an excellent job, your customers will be happy to pass you new business. Helping their contact find a high-quality freelancer makes them look good.

That being said, most professionals are pretty busy—and despite their best intentions, people often put off making referrals for more pressing tasks. You can remove the friction from this process in a couple ways.

To start, make a referral template. Sending a clients a sample message they can use rather than asking them to create an email from scratch makes their job far easier.

Here’s a sample template:

[Your name] is a [type of freelancer] who I hired to [brief summary of project]. I’m very happy with the work they’ve done, especially in [areas the client has given you positive feedback]. When [your name] asked if I knew [description of ideal customer], I thought of you. If you’re interested in [your services], either now or in the future, I’d definitely recommend working with [him/her/his company].

Once your client has agreed to refer you, forward them this template. All they’ll need to do is copy and paste it into an email to their connection.

A referral program means a steady stream of customers. Follow these steps, and you’ll ensure the future success of your freelance business.

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