During my first few months of freelancing, I spent a lot of time pitching new business. Each day, I’d get up and invest three hours a day in reconnecting with contacts in my field, polishing my LinkedIn profile, establishing a profile on Media Bistro and a host of other projects. The result: I got three assignments. It was an okay start, but I needed to make more money to pay the bills.
I was getting a little discouraged until January rolled around. Then, suddenly, my inbox started filling up with responses to my pitches, as clients began a new budget year. I’ve been working at near-full capacity since then.
One reason is referral work. Freelancers get a lot of advice about the importance of crafting the perfect pitches for new clients. That’s important but it’s only a tiny part of what it takes to build a thriving business. In many cases, you can bypass the formal pitching process entirely if clients and other contacts offer a steady stream of word-of-mouth referrals to folks with work to assign.
So how do you get clients to mention you to new prospects? I’m not a big believer in asking them to toot your horn for you. They’re busy. If you’re treating customers well, referrals will start to happen naturally.
It comes down to giving every client–no matter how small the job or how stressful the circumstances–the best service you can deliver–and doing it cheerfully. People who’ve seen you do a great job will remember it and mention you to others.
Your contacts need to know that referring you will invariably be a good thing for all concerned. I recently referred a longstanding client to Elizabeth for a potential gig I could not take for a simple reason: I trust her and know that if the project comes to fruition, the client will enjoy working with her and she’ll do a great job on it. I cannot imagine any possible scenario where referring work to her would come back to haunt me. That’s how people in your network need to feel about you before they extend themselves on your behalf.
In case these examples are helpful in building your business, here’s a quick analysis of a few recent referrals I received recently and how they came about.
1. The wife of a client recommended me to someone she knows. I’ve been working with a professor for several years on short academic editing projects. As he’s picked up the pace of his publishing, I’ve done some very quick turnaround edits of complex articles for him. His wife, who originally found me on Media Bistro, recently mentioned my name to a firm that needed a business editor for a report on a subject in which I’ve been interested for a while. Thanks to her, I just finished a fascinating editing project I would never have heard about otherwise.
2. A magazine editor passed my name along to three other colleagues. I’d previously written a handful of stories for this national publication, which has very high standards and requires a fair amount of legwork. One project required me to do some intensive, last-minute reporting over a holiday weekend. After we made it through that deadline, the editor introduced me to two fellow editors with a similar quick-turnaround project that’s now complete.
On top of this, the original editor was nice enough to suggest my name to a colleague at a website her company owns. The website editor needed editing help on small-business related stories. It turned out that I knew the colleague–but I didn’t know she needed freelance help. So now, thanks to my original editor, I’m working on an online editing project for the web editor, too.
3. One of my editors at left his job–and passed along my name to the “new guy.” His successor contacted me, and several other freelancers, recently to ask for story ideas and, in response to a quick pitch I sent, just made an assignment to me. The site was an occasional client in the past, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the original editor remembered the handful of stories I wrote for him. And in a nice twist, the original editor also hired me to write a couple of short articles for his new employer recently.
We live an insecure existence as freelancers. By building the best possible relationship with every one of your clients, you can counterbalance this somewhat, by fostering a steady stream of referrals. You never know when that tiny job will pave the way to a new and exciting project.