Savvy independent professionals know that referrals are the best way to land new clients. But getting those referrals can sometimes be a challenge. When referrals don’t come easily — or the ones you get seem to be off track — it’s tempting to forget about building referrals and spend time on cold calling, boilerplate letters and emails, or advertising, even though you know those approaches aren’t as effective in the long run.
Instead, try getting smarter about getting referrals. Here are the five most common sources of referrals for independent professionals, and keys to making them work for you.
1. Current or former clients.
Keys to more referrals: Clients must be satisfied with your value, find you easy to work with, and not mind “sharing” you.
Common mistakes: Focusing on clients as your main source of referrals.
Of course no one will refer you if you don’t do quality work. But they also won’t refer if they find you difficult to work with or think they could do better elsewhere. Clients often stay even when dissatisfied, just out of inertia. If you’ve ever been asked for a referral yourself and replied, “Well, I work with so-and-so, but I wouldn’t really recommend him,” you understand this phenomenon.
Before you start asking your clients for referrals, ask them instead, “What else can I do to improve my service to you?” Take action on their requests, and THEN ask if they might know someone to refer to you. Another good moment to ask for referrals is any time a client thanks you for a job well done.
Recognize that you probably have fewer people in your pool of current and former clients than in any of the other four groups listed below. So don’t focus on getting referrals from clients while ignoring other possibilities. Keep in mind, too, that sometimes existing clients don’t want to “share” you. They may be afraid you won’t be as available for their projects. Or if your work is of a personal nature, they may not want people who they know to work with you also.
2. Fellow members of networking groups.
Keys to more referrals: They must get to know, like, and trust you.
Common mistakes: Expecting referrals just by joining a group.
A member of a networking group I was managing once complained to me, “I was told I would get referrals from this group. Well, where are they?” When I asked if she had been coming to our events to meet other members, she replied, “No, I only joined for the referrals.” She truly believed that just by JOINING this group, somehow referrals would mysteriously appear.
Networking groups can be an extremely productive source of referrals, but you need to not only meet other members, you must get to know them. People rarely refer based on a business card or 30-second introduction. Instead, use groups as a springboard to initiate coffee, lunch, or phone conversations to get better acquainted with group members and begin building a relationship.
3. Colleagues in your field.
Keys to more referrals: Their clients or specialties must be different from yours or they must be overbooked.
Common mistakes: Spending all your networking time with people who do exactly what you do.
The most common type of networking is participating in your own professional association. This is valuable for building credibility and keeping up in your field, but isn’t always the best avenue to increase referrals. Focus your referral-building activities within your profession on identifying colleagues whose target market or specialty is different than your own. Or, seek out those people who always seem to have more business than they can handle, and could send some your way.
4. Others who share your target market.
Keys to more referrals: They must know what you do, who you do it for, and when someone might need you.
Common mistakes: Networking just to meet people without telling them enough to refer to you.
Seeking out people in different professions than your own who happen to share your target market is an often neglected — but very fruitful — source of referrals. But because these folks aren’t in your field, it’s crucial to inform them about who would be a good client for you and the benefits of your work. Set up a meeting or call with folks like these to educate them about what you do, and be sure to also ask how you can assist with referrals or resources THEY need.
5. Friends, family, and personal acquaintances.
Keys to more referrals: They must know enough about your business.
Common mistakes: Not talking about your business to people in your personal life.
It’s a frequent failing of new entrepreneurs to avoid telling those in their personal life about their business. It seems they are waiting to become successful before letting people know what they’re doing now. But holding back in this way can actually prevent you from succeeding.
Friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances from school, church, sports, or hobbies can be excellent referral sources because they already know and trust you. Take the time to describe your business, and let them know what type of clients you’re seeking. You may be pleasantly surprised by their willingness to help.
So if you’re ready to get more referrals, get smart about it. Expand your thinking about who might refer to you, and put in place some of these essential keys to make referrals more likely. It’s said that good things come to those who wait, but better things often come to those who go out looking for them.