For new freelancers getting business may look like an endless “pitch-negotiate-deliver-pitch' cycle”. You ALWAYS need to either go after clients or focus on building your personal brand so you can have the clients going after you. And in-between those steps — somehow get your core work done.
But that’s not the only way to run a freelance business.
In fact, the majority of successful freelancers I know (myself included) are perpetually “off the market” — meaning not in active client-pursuing mode.
So how do they get clients? Through referrals.
A referral is a privately shared, word-of-mouth professional introduction you can get from your network. Awesome Client A introduces you to their Awesome Friend B who needs your service. The friend is already “sold” on your offer because of the Client’s glowing endorsement. After that, you strike a deal and get started — without any lengthy negotiations.
Referrals expose you to “hidden work opportunities” — gigs that aren't yet (or ever) advertised publicly. Plus, you don’t have to put in the hard work of promoting your services or proactively marketing to clients.
An even better part? You don’t need a strong online presence to build a profitable referral based-business
Take it from Mike Keenan, a successful content writer, SEO consultant, and co-founder of peakfreelance.com. Mike doesn’t have a personal portfolio website or an army of Twitter followers. Still, in 2020 he earned north of six figures.
As Mike mentioned in a podcast, shared in the Peak Freelance community:
“I focused a lot of my energy on client relationships. Not to the point where we're like texting each other all day but getting friendly with them and honestly building a relationship that's not transactional.”
His investment paid off big time. Last year, all of Mike’s clients, including some big names like Shopify and Help Scout, came through referrals.
Now you are probably wondering: aren’t referral-based freelance businesses an exception rather than the norm?
Data suggests the opposite. One in-depth study of independent workers found that 84% of solo business owners who earn over $100,000 per year get most of their work through word-of-mouth recommendations.
A fresher survey from a freelance writer, Kaleigh Moore, also found that 89% of freelance writers name “referrals” as their top way to get new projects. For comparison, less than 25% rely on “cold pitching” or “job boards.”
If you too want to tone down your self-promotion without losing income, focus more on generating referrals for your freelance business.
Don’t treat referrals as a marketing chore.
You don’t have to message clients on a rotating schedule with a “Can you, please, refer me?” note. That’s marginally better than cold pitching.
To build a referral-based business, you need to network.
That means paying forward through being an awesome, helpful, reliable freelance partner for your clients — and then having this reputation work for you.
Contrary to popular belief, referrals won’t get you a ton of work overnight (there are faster ways to get more clients). The goal of a referral system is to provide you with a steady flow of retainer-based work in the long term.
Now if you're okay with looking at networking through this prism, here are three ways to generate more referrals for your freelance business.
An “anchor” client is a person who provides you with predictable work year-on-year. Their projects occupy a prime spot on your freelance work schedule.
Apart from providing predictable income, anchor clients are also your best way to secure more business.
First of all, they already know your strengths and core services. Because of this, they can recommend projects that best match your skills. And vice versa — people in their network probably fit your ideal customer profile.
Next, it’s not just freelancers who like to change projects. Your clients also switch titles. Having solid relationships with anchor clients also helps you:
That’s what happened to me a few times. Before quitting, one marketing manager introduced me to the new Head of Content. Two months later, she also called me in to join her new team. Essentially, I did nothing to double my workload (and income!).
Here’s another scenario — your client leaves to start their own business. By following along you can be their go-to person for overflow work (if you operate in the same industry). Or become a subcontractor, offering complementary services to their clients. Again, low input — high-value results.
But let’s be real: You have to build relationships and trust before people will start sending work your way.
“The best tip I have about building client relationships is to care about the results of your work,” Mike advises. “Your clients likely have people they need to impress, be it the CEO or CMO of their company. You want to help them look better so they can keep you around longer. So rather than doing work and signing off, take a moment to reflect on how you can make this client’s work easier. Then go on and do that thing!”.
Clients are one major source of referrals — fellow freelancers are the second.
Not every client will be a fit for you. You may not have sufficient bandwidth or enough experience in their niche. Send such inquiries to other freelancers.
That’s a win-win for everyone. A client finds a better lead, someone else lands their “dream gig,” and you’ll feel awesome for making that match happen. That’s what I personally do whenever I can.
Apart from giving and receiving referrals in your vertical (e.g. writing), you should also network with freelancers in adjacent industries. Designers often need writers or developers. Marketers need email marketing consultants and SEO specialists, and so on.
The added benefit of teaming up with other freelancers? You get to make some amazing friends (because freelancing can get lonely). And maybe even meet a business partner who could help you scale your solo freelance hustle into a small business.
Finally, there’s a time when a good “ask” makes the most sense.
But you have to ask your clients for referrals strategically.
First, make sure your anchor clients have all the bases covered. Offer to scale up your current engagement if you have a new project opening. This request is best made at the end of the month or quarter.
Here’s how to ask for more work from an existing client:
“Hi! I have some extra work capacity for next month [specify how much e.g. 10 hours or 2 deliverables]. So I was wondering if there’s an extra task I could help you with?”
An “extra help” offer hits a sweet spot during the client’s busy season — new product launch, holiday sales, rebranding campaign, etc. So keep an eye on their company updates.
If your clients don’t need extra help, ask them to refer you out. Again, timing is important here. You should ask a client for a referral when you are wrapping up a large project or making follow-up plans. This shows that you care about their business and will not leave them hanging midway because you are switching to something else.
Here’s how to ask your client for a referral:
“Hi! Glad we [have finalized the plans for next month or are finishing the project]!
I’ve re-checked my calendar and noticed that I have availability for another [service offering]. Since your bases are covered, perhaps you could refer me to someone in your network looking for a [web designer].
I’d be thrilled to know more people in [target industry/niche] and would appreciate an intro. Thanks!”
Chances are you’d get several new leads and close them effortlessly!
To get a consistent stream of referrals, you need to be referral-worthy.
This means meeting and exceeding the clients’ expectations. Be proactive and transparent in your communication. Stand by your word and act like the awesome human being you probably are!
When people are sold on the experience you offer, it doesn’t matter if you are on or off the market — your inbox remains chock-full of relevant leads.
Elena Prokopets writes content for tech-led companies & software development businesses, marketing to them. Her empathy for the customer, expertise in SEO, and knack for storytelling help create content that ranks well and drives industry conversations.
Elena uses Xolo so she can focus on her solo B2B content writing business without stressing over the compliance and admin overhead.
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