Building a referral system is an important business builder for any type of freelancer. It makes sense: When you know someone, it’s easier to recommend them. In this episode, you’ll learn how to build a referral system, so you’re always busy with new projects.
Referrals = warm intros, which will save you time (no need for vetting) and even allow you to increase your rates.
+ “To this day, probably about 75% of my clients come from referrals. And those referrals are actually both from fellow freelancers and clients themselves.” -MK
In this episode of the Creative Class podcast, professional freelance writers Kaleigh Moore and Michael Keenan use their own experiences to illustrate how important referrals are to building and maintaining your freelance business.
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Kaleigh: Okay, so this is our first episode of the new Creative Class podcast.
We are really excited to be talking today about building referral systems, which seems to be a huge topic for anybody who does any type of freelancing because it makes sense. When you know somebody, it’s so much easier to recommend somebody that you know and trust, and can vouch for rather than hiring some random stranger off the internet.
What we’re going to talk about in this episode is:
So, Michael, my first question for you is, one thing I hear over and over is that referrals are freelancers’ number one source of how they get new work. Do you think that that’s true for you?
Michael: I’m gonna have a hard yes, on that one. I would say to this day, probably about 75% of my clients come from referrals. And those referrals are actually both from fellow freelancers and clients themselves.
One thing I’ve found that works really well for me, is doing good work for your clients. It’s very straightforward if you do good work for your clients, they’re gonna refer you to other people who have friends in similar places and it’s an easy in. They call them warm referrals because there’s really no introduction. It’s just a quick email, and it’s like, hey, let’s connect these two people.
How are referrals normally for you, Kaleigh?
Kaleigh: Yeah, I think for the past five years or so, referrals have been the number one source of how I’ve gotten new work, which is really nice because then you don’t have to do cold pitching, you don’t have to do the heavy lifting of sales prospecting and all that. So I think a lot of it is just a matter of building connections with people who do similar work.
Because what happens a lot of the time is people don’t really understand what an individual Freelancer does. So they reach out and they’re like, “Hey, I need help with this very specific project. Do you do this?” And 50% of the time, you’re like, “No, this isn’t quite on the mark for what I do. But I know somebody else who does that. So let me connect you with that person.” I think is the most natural way that it happens.
Kaleigh: I know a lot of people in this space and they know that I really focus on the one thing of blog content, long-form blog content that’s evergreen that’s SEO oriented, and stuff like that. I think the way I started doing that was just kind of immersing myself in places where other freelance writers were spending time. And so Peak Freelance is a perfect environment to kind of kick things off, don’t you think?
Michael: Yeah, I agree. I think anywhere where there’s a tight-knit group of people together that share ideas, share knowledge, share stories with each other. There’s also client sharing that happens there too.
It happens amongst all tight-knit communities. And it doesn’t even need to be a private community like Slack. It can happen in a Facebook group, which I know those are a little outdated, but you still see some Facebook groups. [You see] tens of thousands of people exchanging and collaborating on things now—things like Masterminds and conferences.
I mean, Kaleigh, an example, you and I met really in person, at a conference. Since then, we’ve been able to refer and share clients with each other. If we’re just like, “hey, I don’t think this is a good fit for me right now. You know, Kaleigh, is this something you’re interested in?” I think that’s such an important way of building relationships. Getting referrals is just a natural byproduct of building relationships with people, whether they’re fellow freelancers or your clients.
+ Getting referrals is just a natural byproduct of building relationships with people, whether they’re fellow freelancers or your clients. -MK
Kaleigh: Yes, I totally agree. I would even say that since you and I met we’ve even hired each other. For example, I hired you for an SEO outline that I needed help with because you’re really great at SEO and I worked from the outline that you helped provide.
There are also synergies that can happen when you have these relationships with people. One of the things I hear really often, is people are like, “how do I go about doing that, other than joining communities or joining a Mastermind?” (Which can be really expensive, sometimes.)
I think a really smart practice is just to ask somebody on Twitter or Instagram if they want to do a virtual coffee chat. Don’t make it about making an ask, but say, “Hey, I’d love to, you know, get 20 minutes with you and hear about what you’re working on and see if there’s any, you know, opportunities where down the road, maybe I can send something your way, just kind of want to get to know you a little better.” You’re not making an ask, you’re not like, “hey, I want to do a virtual coffee chat because I need work and I want you to send it my way.” That’s kind of an underlying message. I guess. But you’re also just trying to make friends and build connections.
Michael: Yeah, and again, that’s the key right there. Sure, we know what this could lead to, but you have to genuinely be invested in—or you don’t have to be invested, you have to genuinely enjoy connecting with these people and making friends with these people.
For example, I still connect with content managers, and people that I’ve worked with years ago. We’ll just hit each other up through email and be like, Hey, how are you doing? Like you want to catch up this week? And, you know, when they have a friend, that’s in need of my freelance services, I’m the first person that’s on their mind.
You really have to genuinely enjoy getting in there and getting to know people. You can see through the bullshit if someone’s just on there like, “I want work. I’m only here to connect with you for work.”
On that topic, too, I have a question about what if people don’t want to do zoom calls, right? There was a lot of zoom fatigue throughout the pandemic. So, what’s an alternative option, besides a zoom call?
+ I think it’s important to be strategic about how you invest your time in these things. You don’t want to be talking to anyone and everyone, but you want to talk to people who do similar types of work with similar types of clients, and kind of understand the type of work that you do. -KM
Kaleigh: I think an easy way to do it is there are Twitter chats that are happening. So maybe you can hop into a Twitter chat like Freelance Chat is a good one, it’s hosted by a woman named Michelle. That’s kind of a lower-stakes environment where it’s not just you and one other person, it’s a group of people who are talking.
I think there are also opportunities for maybe you live in a city and there’s a local meetup group, like Creative Mornings, where you could go, and listen and get face-to-face interaction with people. That can be a good, again, low stakes [method] because not all the pressure [is] on you, but it’s a good environment where there are like-minded people in the room.
I think it’s important to be strategic about how you invest your time in these things. You don’t want to be talking to anyone and everyone, but you want to talk to people who do similar types of work with similar types of clients, and kind of understand the type of work that you do.
Otherwise, for example, I live in a rural area, and when I first started my business, everybody was like, go to the Chamber of Commerce meetings, go to the Rotary Club, and I was like, “That is not my club. Not my audience at all. That is a waste of my time. I’m not doing that, nobody there is gonna hire me, and if they did, they’d be like, I’ll give you $5 ($5 for 1000 words).”
So again, be strategic about how you invest your time, because there are only so many hours in a day.
Michael: Oh, I love that. And, you know, I just want to throw it out there that I miss Creative Mornings. So if anyone listens to this, and they’re affiliated with Creative Mornings, please bring it back to my city. I don’t know if they’re doing it in other cities, but I really did love it.
Moving forward, so you know, we all love systems and processes around here. In terms of your referral system, Kaleigh, how do you track your efforts?
I know I’ve definitely been in a place where I’m just fire fingers. I’m just like, hey, how’s it going—I have no idea sometimes—people hit me up and I’m like, Oh, shit. Did I connect with you? I’m sorry. I don’t remember. Did I find you? Who are you again? Who am I?
So how do you systemize that in a way that we can keep the emotions and the fun involved? Instead of just making it a boring corporate system?
+ I think it’s really just building friendships and being a nice person and following up -KM
Kaleigh: I’m very no-frills when it comes to tracking and spreadsheets and stuff like that. I will literally just do a Google spreadsheet and I’ll put the person’s name, what company their work was the last time I spoke with them, and what we talked about. That gives me a frame of reference so I can be like, oh, it’s been six months, I should probably check back in with this person.
And be proactive with those communications. Like you said, so you’re top of mind when something does come up, or when they hear of somebody who needs something. They’ll think, “Oh, yeah, you should talk to Michael or you should talk to Kaleigh. She does XYZ.”
It doesn’t have to be fancy—it doesn’t have to be some big involved software. But I think that just being cognizant of, okay, it’s been six months, or it’s been three months, and trying to keep on top of keeping in touch with specific people who’ve been good sources of referrals in the past.
The other thing too is it doesn’t have to be anything specific. I think people get stuck in their minds that, “oh, I have to talk for an hour” or “I need to have a very scripted email that I send to them.” That’s very formal. I think it’s really just building friendships and being a nice person and following up and saying, “Hey, how are you doing? Or just wanted to say thank you again, for that last referral you said that was amazing. We did X, Y, and Z together. I really appreciated that.” So being gracious, I think is a big part of it, too.
Michael: I love that, and something I want to add in there is supporting fellow freelancers and even these companies that you want to work with—supporting their work. Sharing their designs or sharing their apps that they make, or sharing the articles that they write, and just shouting out those content managers being like, “this was a great piece, or this was a great project. I really love how you did this.”
It falls along this theme of staying top of mind—which again, when it comes to referrals, that’s where you want to be. You want to be the go-to person that people say, “oh, yeah, Mike designs, incredible apps, I know that and I want to send him this referral.”
So besides, those kinds of public interactions, is there anything else you can be doing that’s not public-facing stuff?
+ When you think about it, you want to send the referrals to the person who, number one, appreciates it [and] number two, incentivizes you to do so. -KM
Kaleigh: Yes. So there are two things that I normally do when I get a good referral and I want to really keep that engine going so that the referrals keep coming. Number one is I always always, this is probably super Midwestern of me, but I always send a handwritten thank you note in the actual mail.
Michael: Aww, I love that.
Kaleigh: It’s just… I don’t know, thank you for this snail mail? Anyways, I just do it. I feel like it’s a nice gesture.
Then number two, if there’s a fellow freelancer or content manager, or somebody who regularly sends me work, I will send them a thank you. Whether it’s like a $25 gift certificate to a place that I know that they like, or a local restaurant, or just even an Amazon gift card to be like, “Hey, thank you so much. I wanted to give you a cut of this new work that you sent my way.”
Sometimes I’ll even set up a referral system. So I’ll be like, “Okay, I would love to send work your way. If you could, you know, send me 10% of the first project that you book, I can do this on a more regular basis.” And I think that’s something that a lot of freelancers forget to do, because they’re like, “oh, I don’t know if I should.” But when you think about it, you want to send the referrals to the person who, number one, appreciates it [and] number two, incentivizes you to do so. Otherwise, it’s kind of like what’s in it for me? And everybody wants to know what’s in it for me, so give them a reason to send projects your way.
Michael: That’s so funny, while you were talking, I was like, I’m gonna follow up with giving out percentages. Because that is something that we always forget about. But I’ve been in two situations, actually recently, one where my friend [who] has a link building agency, [asked me] “hey, if you send referrals my way, I will give you 10% of the first year’s project fees and then 1% for life after that.”
In another situation I had a friend refer a client to me, and he was like, “just throw me a little extra cash if you can.” And I said, “no, I’ll give you 10% of the first year of fees—like project fees”, but I didn’t do the 1% forever. I stuck with the 10%. Also, because I’m not an agency, I’m just a freelancer—little less like flexibility.
But you know, this is an interesting point, though you had said 10% of the first project. I’m talking 10% of the first year’s fees. What’s your viewpoint on that?
Kaleigh: Yeah, so for my projects, and the projects that I refer, they’re usually like sales page, not copywriting. So I don’t do a lot of anything kind of copywriting related. And those are usually fairly good sized projects and not something that’s really a continuous effort. So it just makes sense to package it as a one-and-done type thing.
You can always frame it based on the type of work that you’re referring out. I think it’s just kind of a situational—what makes sense here [judgment call]. But yeah, I think it’s okay to ask for that, too. Or at least put it out there as a question as, “Hey, would you be willing to give me 10% of this, I’d love to send referrals your way on a regular basis, we can kind of set up a working relationship here and keep this going.”
It’s great for the other person too, because then they don’t have to work so hard trying to get new projects or getting pre-vetted by somebody that’s trusted within the space. It’s just kind of a win-win across the board, don’t you think?
+ Think about all the time that you’re spending trying to get those clients. It’s giving you some time—some life back, that you don’t have to go out searching for clients, all you’re doing is giving away money to someone who referred you. —MK
Michael: I do think and to carry off on that last part is, you may think it seems like 10% is a lot to give for like a year-long fee, right? If you book a contract for 50k write for the year (and of course, it’s not so straightforward). Not every client is like, I’m gonna give you 50,000 for the year, but it’s more like, here’s $5000/$6,000 a month, whatever it may be, [and it] feels like giving away $500/$600 a month is a lot. But think about all the time that you’re spending trying to get those clients. It’s giving you some time—some life back, that you don’t have to go out searching for clients, all you’re doing is giving away money to someone who referred you.
And there’s no reason why you can’t up your prices, right? If you know that someone’s coming in from a referral, why not tack on a little extra cash? If you’re selling a project for $5K, put it up to $5,555 or something and then 10% off of that—you’re really not losing out.
[But] If you’re public about your prices, then obviously it’s going to look weird if this potential client sees on your website, you charge $5000. But then for them, you charge $5555. But if you’re not public, it gives you a little more flexibility to say I’m going to charge you this and I give away the 10%.
Kaleigh: I think that’s super smart and I think that that’s also another reason to kind of just do a ballpark pricing. If you are going to put numbers out there, say projects start at X. That’s if you are wanting to be a little bit more concrete, that’s one way to get around it.
I think in general, there are a lot of ways that you can get into a regular referral system and having that just [be a] part of your business. And I think it does take ongoing efforts, it does take some business development work where you’re doing it on a regular basis, and you’re sure that you’re being consistent with your follow-ups.
The other thing that I think is really smart is to just build it into your exit process with your clients. Anytime you finish a project, when you’re asking for a testimonial or project feedback, whatever that might be, you can also throw out there, “Hey, I am taking on new clients right now I would love to get a referral. If you know anybody else who needs similar work, feel free to send them my way.”Just making that ask and planting the seeds sometimes it’s enough to get them to start sending people.
Michael: Love that, even throwing it in there, “I’ll also give you 10%. If you find me a good client.”
Kaleigh: Or put it in your handwritten, thank you note. Put a little gift card in there and be like, “more clients, please”.
+ Whatever you can do to get a foot in the door with a warm intro is going to help your chances of success with getting that actual conversation going.—KM
Michael: Okay, so actually, I do have a quick question about this now, because I wonder if there’s a difference between referral rewards and actually baiting for clients? So the question is, (and I’ll give the context) what if people can’t accept money and or gifts as a referral?
The context is, a long time ago, I was working at an agency and we actually sent bottles of wine to all the people we wanted to work with, in the area. The agency was an enterprise SEO agency, and we got three clients off of it—sent 12 bottles out. But a lot of the people came back saying, “we don’t accept gifts as form of like, bait, basically”. So I am curious, what if you are working with a big enterprise client, or whoever, and it’s just not in their policy to accept gifts, be it a gift card, or monetary compensation for giving out [a] referral?
Kaleigh: That’s a good question. I have not personally run into that. I’ve always just been encountering people who are like, “Wow, thank you for this. Nobody does this. This is so nice”. That’s a good question. I wish I had a good answer for that. But I would say, it doesn’t always have to come with a gift or an actual physical or monetary incentive. It can just be a matter of doing cold outreach to people you want to work [with].
I think a smarter thing is to look for warm intros Whether it’s through your LinkedIn connections, or like people, you both know, on Twitter—whatever you can do to get a foot in the door with a warm intro is going to help your chances of success with getting that actual conversation going.
When you say like, “Hey, I’m X, I do this type of service offering, I would love to work with you, here’s my portfolio.” That, I think, is just much more successful than trying to do it cold. But there are people out there who have very successful cold outreach efforts.
I think it all just depends on what your preference is, what you feel most comfortable doing, and what feels most natural. Because like you said, people have good BS meters and they know when you are just kind of fishing for something. And that doesn’t feel good.
Michael: No one wants to feel like you’re using them to meet some end income goal or whatever.
Kaleigh: Lots of good ideas here. Don’t you think? Lots of food for thought.
Michael: Yeah, even for my own freelance business. I’m like, “Alright, where can I implement some of these tactics that we’re talking about?” Especially the part about the exit process, because that’s something I don’t do. Something that I think I would love to start doing. So I’ve even got it in my notes.
Creative Class reopens for new students in Spring 2023: