10 ways to be a great contractor — and get lots of referrals

Delight your customers

It’s not always easy to keep customers coming back for more, and to have them recommend you to other potential clients. Let’s talk about how to keep the customer satisfied, in the words of the old Simon & Garfunkel song.

Let’s start with some assumptions, to make sure we’re in sync:

You want to work for yourself, and run your own small business so that you can set your own hours and fees.

You want to perform professional services.

You want to have clients who engage you on a regular basis, either on a pre-determined schedule (like you go into their offices every week to water their plants), or on an as-needed basis (like they call you for tax advice or design graphics brochures, which you do from your home office).

And you want to have a fair number of repeat or regular clients, so that you’re not financially locked into any one customer.

A good rule of thumb is to not let any one customer be more than 25 percent of total billings.


With me so far? OK, let’s add three objectives:

  1. You want your clients to be satisfied, so that you keep being engaged (and paid).
  2. You’d like your clients, if asked as a reference, to say good things about you.
  3. You’d like your clients to proactively recommend you as a great contractor.

Here are 10 things you can do to reach those objectives.

1. Be professional.

Whether you work from home or travel to clients, remember that they’re customers — and they’ll appreciate that you treat the relationship in a business-like manner. If you go to their office, dress professionally — even if the employees don’t. Answer your phone like a business does, not with a “Yo!” Record a respectable-sounding outgoing voicemail message. And make sure your invoices look professional.

2. Be proactive.

You are a service provider … and sometimes you can’t perform that service, or need to make changes to service delivery. Be proactive in telling your clients that you’ll be unavailable on some dates, or that you need to raise rates, or that the brochure you are designing won’t be available on the promised date. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)

3. Be responsive.

When your client contacts you, respond right away. A good rule of thumb is that if the client contacts you in the morning, respond that day; if they contact you in the afternoon, respond by noon the next day.

You’ll get points for being quick to respond.


If that’s not feasible, make sure your customers know how to reach you by phone, text and email. Reply as promptly as possible, even if it’s to say, “I can’t talk now, but will contact you tomorrow before 10 a.m.”

4. Get it done, right.

If you agree to take an assignment, do exactly what your client wants — and do it when they want it. In most cases, a deadline is the last day when the project should be finished; clients love (most of the time) when projects are done sooner.

Go the extra miles to ensure that the work is exceptional. For example, if you’re a copywriter, ask someone to proof your work. If you detail cars, give it an extra polish before calling the owner to inspect.

5. Set fair rates for both parties.

Know what your services are worth. Decide if you’re going to be a low-cost provider (“We do it for less!”) or if you’re going to be a premium services provider who charges more than the industry minimum (“You’re tried the rest, now try the best!”).

Only you can tell what’s best for you, your market and your skills.


Make sure you clearly communicate your cost and fees, and that you get acceptance, preferably in writing. Spell things out clearly so that everyone agrees on exactly what’s going to be done, and how much it will cost, whether it’s by the project, by the day, or by the hour.

6. Business is business.

So many contractors are afraid to talk about money. Get over it! It’s business! Explain how you will bill for your services. Understand your client’s policies about invoicing. Don’t be shy about asking how they pay. If they aren’t paying on time, know who to talk to: Start with your primary contact. Don’t escalate late invoices to accounting or elsewhere unless truly necessary — if you’re deemed a troublesome contractor, your tenure will be short and your reputation will suffer.

7. Don’t go above and beyond.

You want your client to be satisfied — and the best way to do that is to do exactly what you have been contracted to do, on time, and with excellence. If you were hired to write a 1,200-word marketing message, don’t send in 1,500 words. If you were hired to paint the walls, don’t paint the ceiling. If you were hired to examine the tax return, don’t offer investment advice. Stick to the deal.

8. Ask for feedback.

Like any business, you need to know how you’re doing so you can improve your services. But asking for feedback can also give you an early warning if there’s a problem with a client. Just because they paid the bill promptly doesn’t mean they were absolutely delighted. Perhaps it’s a verbal chat in the hallway. Maybe it’s a short survey. You might even request a formal conversation. Just don’t hound the client or ask for feedback too often — that’s an annoyance.

9. Make it easy for them to recommend you.

Make sure that if your client wants to recommend you, they have something to use — or you probably won’t get the referral. Depending on the nature of your service, it might be a brochure or a website. Set up a Facebook Business Page and/or a LinkedIn profile. Don’t be shy about asking your client to help spread the word — if they’re delighted with you and your work, they’ll be happy to do it.

10. And ask for more business.

After you complete a project, be sure to ask, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” If so, try to lock in the details as soon as you can, and start as soon as you can. If not, try to find out why. Because it was a one-time project for this year, and you’ll get called next tax season? (If that’s the case, make a note to be proactive about calling.) Because they thought you were too expensive? Because they weren’t thrilled? If you don’t ask for more business, chances are you won’t get more business.

Do a great job, and your clients are likely to come back for more and recommend your services to others. Don’t give it your all, and things might not go so well. You know what to do. Go do it!

Image by: ian boyd via Compfight cc

Alan Zeichick
Writer. Speaker. Analyst. Consultant. With a career spanning three decades as a technologist, publisher and conference producer, Alan Zeichick brings depth, experience, vision and thought leadership to the IT industry. As editor-in-chief of Software Development International, AI Expert and the Mathematica Journal — and one of the founding Jolt Judges — Alan pioneered coverage of leading-edge academic and enterprise programming topics. Today, Alan is president of Camden Associates, an analyst firm focused on software development and network technologies. When Alan isn’t doing tech stuff, he drinks coffee, drives his beloved Acura NSX, drinks coffee, takes nature photographs, drinks coffee, and then drinks more coffee. Alan lives in Phoenix, surrounded by saguaro cactuses, hummingbirds and butterflies. Alan really should switch to decaf.