5 Keys to Building Referral Business

The most common challenge for freelance designers, especially new freelancers, is finding paying clients. Obviously, having clients is critical to running a successful business, but with so many freelancers and design agencies out there it may be very difficult to find enough work. There are a lot of different strategies that can be used for finding projects when things are slow, bidding sites like Elance are popular, but having a steady stream of referrals from past clients, friends, and family is the ideal way to keep new work coming in.

Referral business is extremely valuable for a few reasons. First, you don’t have to spend time trying to find the business. If you’re bidding on projects from freelance sites you can easily spend several hours to have a chance at landing even a small gig. With referral business, the clients are coming to you. Second, inquiries from referrals tend to convert to paying clients at a higher rate than most other potential clients because the person doing the referring is actually helping to sell your services. Since the new client trusts the opinion of their friend or colleague that is doing the referring, they will typically feel more comfortable with you than they would with a stranger. Third, referral business tends to build over a period of time. So the work that you put in now can pay off exponentially in the future as you have more clients out there who are sending business your way.

Keys to Building Referral Business

Since there is so much to like about referral business it is worth taking a look at the things you can do to increase your chances of getting referrals from your clients.

1. Quality of Work

The most important and most obvious key is the quality of your work. If your clients are excited about the work that you have done for them they will be much more likely to refer others to you. But if they’re not pleased with the quality of work, it’s unlikely that they will ever send referral business.

The work that you do for a client impacts your ability to land new work in the future, so make sure that you are placing enough emphasis on doing the best job that you are capable of for your clients.

2. Quality and Ease of Service

In addition to the quality of the design work that you do for the client, they’ll also have a positive experience overall if you provide them with good customer service and if you are easy to work with. A pleasant working relationship is always helpful when it comes to getting referrals. Your clients will want to know that their friends and colleagues will have a good experience with anyone that they recommend.

Clients will also be more likely to refer people to you if they know that you are  easy to get in touch with. Whether it be by phone, email, IM, or social networking, clients will want to know that you will be easy to reach for anyone that they refer to you. If you have a habit of not getting back to the client or of being difficult to reach, the client may figure it is just easier to recommend another designer.


Quality customer service is important for a lot of reasons, and referral business is just one of them. If you make an effort to give your clients a positive experience working with you, they’ll be more willing to send people your way knowing that you will provide the same type of service.

3. On-going Contact

Staying in touch with your clients is also a key to getting referral business. Even if you do a great job for a client, if it’s been a long time since you’ve had contact with them, they may not be thinking of you when an opportunity for a referral arises. If you’re not doing on-going work for the client you may want to send a card during the holidays or on the client’s birthday, send an email just to check in and see if there is anything you can help them with, or you could even set up a mailing list or newsletter to have consistent contact with your past clients.

Simply getting in touch with the client a few times per year will help to keep you in the front of their minds for those situations when they are talking to someone who might benefit from your services.

4. Awareness

Some clients won’t even think to refer someone to you without a little bit of prompting. They may be completely happy with the services you provided for them, but referring people to you is not on their list of priorities, so even if they know of someone who could benefit they just may not think of it. It never hurts to simply ask your clients if they know of anyone else who could use your services. Make them aware of the fact that you would appreciate any referrals and that you could provide the same type of service for anyone that they send your way.

In addition, the client should also be aware of the specific services that you provide so they know exactly what you have to offer. Most designers offer a variety of different services, and something that you didn’t do for that particular client may be of use to one of their friends.

5. Incentives

If building referral business is important to you and it’s not happening naturally, you may want to think about offering some incentives to your clients if they refer others to you. The incentive could be monetary, it could be a discount on your services, or it could be something applicable that you could throw in to sweeten the deal. For example, if you are a hosting reseller you could give a few months of free hosting as a bonus to anyone who sends you a new client.

Incentives aren’t necessary to build referral business, and they don’t take away the need for quality work and quality service, but they can help to speed things up if your referrals are coming in slowly. Use incentives carefully so as not to de-value your services or to look like you are desperate for work, but use them when appropriate.

What’s Your Experience?

If you have experience with building referral business please feel free to share your own tips in the comments.

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19 Responses

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  • Mayur, November 24, 2010

    This is a nice information, i am thinking if this can be applied to multi level marketing related products? Providing incentives would work like anything, that is really a nice tip.

  • Andy Walpole, November 24, 2010

    “Some clients won’t even think to refer someone to you without a little bit of prompting.”

    That’s right – just ask a simple question “Can you think of anybody else who you could refer my / our services to?”

  • James, November 24, 2010

    A referral business is a dream for many businesses. Of course, it saves money on marketing and PR. Word of mouth marketing is the best method of developing your business.

    Customers will only buy from people that they like, know and trust. Therefore, as a business your main priority is to be well known; trust worthy; reliable and liked.

    The best method of gaining clients for repeat business is to treat everyone as the most important person on Earth.

    Treat your clients as you want to be treated back. Always go that extra mile to impress your clients. I agree that you should always be easy to contact. It’s critical to build your contact list.

  • Jamie Maing, November 24, 2010

    Great tips! Thank you! I think I’ve been partially doing this and never thought much about it. Definitely going to do these more! :)

  • Andy @ FirstFound, November 25, 2010

    A newsletter or email list helps you keep in touch with those occasional clients, and it’s a good place to put some incentives – tell a friend, I’ll buy you a kitten sort of things.

    But you’ve sown it up in point one. Do great work, your clients will tell people about it.

  • Host.co.in Affiliate Programe, November 25, 2010

    Payment methods are the the most affecting factors in such business as there are different methods adopted by different companies. People want their commission money in their hands as quickly as possible

  • Translation Services UK, November 26, 2010

    Great information, thanks! Obviously the higher quality of work you provide the more people will talk about it generating cost effective leads!

  • andreyash10, November 26, 2010

    This is great tip! I have been looking for this and thank GOD I found it. This is very informative. Thank you so much!

  • Honest Jay, November 26, 2010

    Good points. They all go together to create loyalty.

    I like the idea of asking for referrals. Don’t just assume people will refer others to you but they just might be able to. Doesn’t hurt to ask.

  • Web Design East Yorkshire, November 27, 2010

    Good article, this is definitely the best way to get new business… “If you know anyone that would need a website please point them in my direction” is always one of the last things I mention to a happy client.

  • Karen Scharf, November 27, 2010

    It’s really a big help. Building referral business is like building a strong relationship to your clients. They will fully trust you if you gave them a quality work and definitely they will refer you to others with your nice performance.

  • Mal Milligan, November 27, 2010

    I’ve found referrals to be a mixed bag… same for direct calls from internet searches and dropping off fliers at prospect’s offices. Most people I talk with just want to pick my brain for information so they can comparison shop. And with referrals a lot of calls are people looking for something weird or generally unavailable from most vendors. I found the higher I rank for key phrases on SE’s the more calls I get from my website, but of course I have to sift through more dirt to get to the gold. I turn away 4 or 5 prospects for every one I give a bid to. Mostly because they never read a word on my website and they call about stuff I don’t offer. I would also mention my personal experience trying to get jobs from Craigslist probably compares to dumpster diving. And Elance is a lot like eBay in that shoppers are looking for the vendor that is 50 cents cheaper and sometimes they have unrealistic expectations trying to drive work down to 10 bucks an hour or less. My advice, try all methods and work it. Cheers – Mal

  • Shapla Amin, November 28, 2010

    Thanks for the tips. i was thinking of how to do it and these tips shows the light

  • Urviho, November 29, 2010

    Nice tips, but it’s not so easy as it seems :)

    • Vandelay Website Design, November 29, 2010

      Hi Urviho,
      Thanks for your feedback. It’s definitely not easy, and the article is not intended to say that it is. However, although it is not easy it can still help to break it down and look at the basics of what is most important in order to build referral business. In most cases the keys are pretty simple and straightforward, even if they are not easy.

  • Swopper, November 30, 2010

    This is a great topic on referrals as most of our clients and visitors are done through referrals and word of mouth which make this article very useful and timely … thanks for sharing :)

  • emlak haberleri, December 6, 2010

    Thanks for the tips. i was thinking of how to do it and these tips shows the light

  • Chris Saracino, February 23, 2011

    Great post. Ongoing contact incentives are key elements of stoking the referral engine. Interesting insight.

  • Toronto Web Developer, June 10, 2011

    Amazing post,
    I think keeping in touch with clients is the most important aspect on this list.