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Fishing for Referrals

When was the last time you took out a full-page ad in your local newspaper to advertise your services? Or paid for a 60-second television spot during the morning soaps (you know, when they run all those commercials for personal injury lawyers and schools that promise to teach you how to become a certified medical tech in five days or less)? Or ran a big, fat Yellow Pages spread touting your prompt and reliable service? Oh, wait -- was that your name I saw plastered on the side of the Goodyear blimp during the Super Bowl?

I didn't think so.

As you may be aware, referrals from happy current clients are the best source of happy new clients. It's a rare IP who devotes much time or money to advertising their services through traditional media outlets such as newspapers, magazines, radio, or television. Why? Because the vast majority of clients prefer to hire people who come to them tested and recommended by someone they trust -- most often a friend, relative, or business associate. The number of referrals you'll get is directly related to the quality of the job you do for your current clients, and how satisfied they are with you and with your work. Which is to say, focus your energy on Doing Work and you'll inevitably be Getting Work.

But getting referrals is a delicate business. No client wants to make a referral to a business associate whom they like and respect, only to have an unreliable IP screw up the entire deal. A bad referral is bad for both the client whose project gets messed up and the dunce who makes the recommendation. That's why clients tend to give referrals only for IPs whom they trust, and on whom they can rely without question.

So, what can you do to make it easy for your current clients to refer you to new ones? Funny you should ask. Here's a list of five techniques guaranteed to create happy clients -- happy clients who will put you on the top of their list of preferred service providers, while telling their associates and others about you:

  1. Do great work. The art of getting great referrals from your current clients in the future starts with doing great work for them now. Not an okay job, not an acceptable job -- we're talking about doing a barn-burning, rip-snorting great job for your clients. The kind of job that will cause your clients to broadcast your praises to anyone and everyone who is interested in hiring you. Do great work, and do it consistently, and you won't have to worry about referrals. (And if you don't know what great work is, or doubt that you can do it, or don't want to put the effort into excelling for your stinking clients… then you probably won't last very long as an IP.)

  2. Be on time and within budget. Want to know what drives your clients absolutely nuts? Tell them that the illustration/report/program or whatever is going to be a week late. Want to really put the icing on the bad-news cake that you just handed them? Tell them that the project isn't only going to be a week late, but it's going to cost them twice as much. Delivering your products or services late -- and charging more money that you agreed to -- is a tried-and-true recipe for rocky client relations. Such problems may be tolerated once or twice -- but if they persist, your clients won't think twice about referring you to, well, anyone.

  3. Be easy to work with. Have you measured your head lately? You know, gotten out a tape measure and wrapped it around the old noggin to see how big it is? Maybe you should. There's a disease rampant among many IPs; it's called know-it-all-itis, and it can strike any freelancer -- at any time or place -- without warning. While a certain amount of self-confidence and bravado is probably a good trait for an IP to possess, when it grows out of control and turns you into a full-blown jackass, you're going to have a problem. Here's a tip: be easy to work with. Nine out of ten clients prefer IPs who are humble, who are calm when criticized, and who never -- ever -- intimate that they know more than their clients do.

  4. Deliver more than you promise. Everyone likes to get more than they bargained for, and your clients are no different. One of the easiest ways to make a favorable impression on your clients is to deliver more than you promise. The project is due in four weeks? Deliver it in three. You've promised to provide your client with 20 to 30 good photos to choose from? Give her 40. Build value in your business relationships by becoming increasingly more valuable to your clients. Delivering more than you promise will help you do just that.

  5. Keep in touch. You're no doubt familiar with the lovely old cliché "out of sight, out of mind." When it comes to IPs, out of mind is definitely not the place you want to be -- at least not if you want to establish long-term business relationships with your clients, and earn their continued business and referrals to potential new clients. So, how do make your presence felt? It's simple: keep in touch with your clients. Call them on the phone on a regular basis. Send them email updates on your progress. You might even write them a handwritten thank-you letter when the project is over. The more memorable you make yourself and your work, the better, deeper, and longer lasting your business relationships will be, and the more often your clients will refer you to others.

While future business is important -- without it, you may find yourself entertaining thoughts of going back to work for a regular company (don't even go there!) -- it's really not as important as taking care of your current clients. Take care of your current clients and, chances are, they'll take care of you.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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