Ask the cubicle expat: How do I ask my clients for referrals?

February 3rd, 2009

February finds me wanting to catch up on my backlog of Ask the Cubicle expat questions. Here’s another good one I hadn’t yet answered online…

Rebecca asks: I’d like to ask my current clients for referrals, but I’m not really sure how to go about it.  Can you help?

I answer: I have a few suggestions.

(1) Call each client (yes, by phone) to discuss their project. Pick a time when you know they won’t be rushed. Tell them you’re looking to expand your client pool or get more clients in their industry or niche (perhaps they’re the first musician you’ve designed a blog for and you’d like to get more musicians as clients). Then simply ask if they have any colleagues — at their company or otherwise — who might need your services. You may even want to throw in a little joke about how they’ll always be your first priority, no matter how many of their friends they refer you to.

(2) Send out an email or social media blast saying that you’re growing your business and offering a referral bonus to any client who hooks you up with a colleague that purchases at least 10 hours of your time (or whatever parameters make the most sense to you). Pick the compensation you think would be most valuable to your clients: $200 off their next job, $100 gift certificate, free one-hour consult with you, free toaster. Stay away from offering a percentage-based kickback. You don’t necessarily want your clients to know what their friends are paying you. Besides, a 1 or 2 percent kickback sounds so low, even though it may be just the right amount to offer (on a $10,000 job, you’d be giving away $100 or $200). And a 5 or 10 percent kickback is way too high (on a $10,000 job, you’d be giving away $500 or $1000, which is excessive).


(3) Couch your plea for referrals in a larger email or postcard update to your clients. Tell them about your website makeover, your spring break (or summer, or year-end) vacation schedule, or a new service you’re offering (SEO consulting, web hosting, translation). Then tell them that, by the way, you have this great new referral policy.

(4) Do a blog post linking to recession-busting tips or deals you know about that could benefit your client. Example: Web hosting company X is running a promo called 5% Discount February. Business coach Y is offering a special introductory package of 10 sessions for the price of eight. And of course, you’re currently offering an excellent referral incentive.

(5) Add mention of your desire for referrals (and any kickbacks you offer) to your website, email sig, and social media profiles. Biznik — a SM site for indie professionals — even offers a spot in your profile for featuring such promotional offerings.

Anyone else have any referral-raising tactics that have worked? Do tell.

Entry Filed under: Ask the Cubicle Expat

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rebecca  |  February 3rd, 2009 at 5:33 am

    Thanks for all suggestions!

  • 2. Guin White  |  February 3rd, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    These are terrific ideas, Michelle. I work in the non-profit world and we’re feeling the same pinch (maybe worse) as everyone else. Your suggestions give me inspiration for ways to expand our member/donor base without sounding like we’re begging…again. Cheers!

  • 3. Michelle Goodman  |  February 3rd, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Guin, COOL! Thanks, and glad to help.

  • 4. Kelly Parkinson  |  February 3rd, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    OMG! These are such helpful suggestions. I was just thinking about this problem today. I wanted to give a 10% referral fee, but it just seemed too high. And I didn’t want people knowing how much other people were paying. The choice of incentives is genius. And it also takes away the quandary a potential referrer might face of whether or not they should disclose they were getting a referral fee. A discount off their next job or a gift certificate aren’t really worth mentioning. But $1,000 on a $10,000 project seems like it definitely IS. Thank you!

  • 5. Michelle Goodman  |  February 3rd, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    You’re all very welcome. Thanks for stopping by!

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Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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