If you have freelanced or owned your own business for any length of time, you know how difficult it can be to create a constant, steady stream of qualified clients who are happy to pay you what you’re worth. From marketing and social media efforts to networking and advertising to strategic partnerships and public speaking, it takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to persuade a stranger to hire you or buy from you.
It is so much easier to sell new projects and more work to existing clients who already love you than it is to sell to strangers.
It’s also much easier to simply provide every client with such remarkable service that they then refer you to everyone they know.
A personal referral from someone a prospect already trusts helps you build trust faster, establish rapport easier, and close sales more rapidly.
16 things you can do to earn more client referrals
Here are 16 simple things you can do — that don’t cost any money and take little effort — to provide remarkable service, turn your clients into raving fans, and earn more referrals:
Answer the phone.
Respond to email.
Be fully present.
Really, truly listen.
Write things down.
Look to the future.
Send a handwritten note.
Champion the objectives.
Throw in an extra.
Check in regularly.
Own mistakes quickly.
Each of these points is a critical key to providing great customer service. Put them all together, and you’ll soon have the building blocks to create a sustainable, referral-based business. Let’s explore these in more detail.
1. Answer the phone
There is a huge number of designers and developers who don’t like talking on the phone and don’t want to talk on the phone. They only want to work and communicate by email, through a project management system, or through a ticket system. Don’t be one of these people.
People want to do business with other people, especially people they know, like and trust, and they want to be able to talk to you. Stand out from the crowd and be more helpful than anyone else by simply answering the phone and being willing to have a conversation.
2. Respond to email
When you’re up against a deadline and you’ve got more work to do than hours in the day, I know it can be easy to ignore email. I also know that it’s easy to read an email, set the intention to respond later, get busy, and forget, then see it again, intend to respond later, and forget again.
Being overworked is no picnic, but your paying clients need to hear from you and receive a response to their emails. Do your best to respond the same day they send you an email or at least within 24 hours.
If they have a complicated question or their message requires you to do some research or work you don’t have time for at the moment, that’s OK! Simply respond san say something like:
“Hi! Thanks for reaching out. I’m booked solid on deadline for the next two days, but didn’t want to leave you hanging. I got your message I can definitely look into this on Thursday and get back to you then.”
This quick note ensures that your client receives a positive response, shows that you are on top of things, and demonstrates your commitment to the work you’re hired for.
3. Be fully present
When meeting with a client, whether by phone, email, video chat, or in person, be completely present. That means that you should leave your phone in the car or in the other room on silent, close your browser, close Slack, close social media, and close email.
They’ve invested in you and your services and you owe it to them to provide your full attention.
4. Really, truly listen
When interacting with your client, listen, really listen to everything they say and if possible, communicate in person or through video chat instead of over the phone so you can not only hear their words, but see their facial expressions and body language.
By taking the time to listen, you’ll help your client feel valued, cared for, and understood. In turn, you’ll be more valued and appreciated.
As the expert hired and the leader of the project at hand, you need to make sure that you understand your client, what they need, what they say, and what they mean, because what they say and what they mean aren’t always the same thing.
By taking the time to simply listen, you’ll help your client feel valued, cared for and understood — and because so few service providers actually do this, you’ll also be more valued and appreciated.
5. Write things down
I hate it when I go to a restaurant, place my order with the server, and they don’t write anything down. Unfortunately, due to food allergies and illness, we usually have to make some type of modification to what we order, and when the server takes all of the orders for the whole table, including special requests and writes nothing down, it doesn’t impress. Instead, not writing anything down causes stress because I know from experience that at least one thing is not going to come out correctly and will need to be sent back.
The exact same thing is true for your client projects. Never assume that you’re going to remember everything, because you’re not, especially if you run into delays and it takes you a week to get to making the changes discussed.
Get a notebook to keep all client project notes in. Create a folder where all of your project notes and paperwork are stored. Take notes in your project management software during a meeting or transfer your notes to the client project file when the meeting is over. However you do it, just make sure you do it. Writing down project notes will ensure that nothing gets forgotten and falls through the cracks.
6. Communicate clearly
Chances are, your clients don’t work in your industry. This means that your clients don’t do what you do every day and don’t speak the same language you do. They might not understand the jargon, acronyms and terms you use, and they might not fully understand the process or how things work. And sometimes, even when they tell you they understand, they don’t or they understand it differently than you do.
Confusion creates frustration and misunderstandings can negatively impact the experience a client has working with you, so throughout the entire project, communicate clearly and explain everything in detail. The goal should be no confusion and zero misunderstanding.
7. Communicate often
There is no such thing as too much communication, especially when dealing with something technical like building a website. Clear communication isn’t enough on its own. You also need regular communication.
From start to finish, it is imperative that you communicate with your client every step of the way not only about what is happening now, what will happen next, and what they can expect, but what you are doing and what you need them to do.
8. Show empathy
Your client is going to run into some type of problem or challenge during your work together.
The work you need them to do is going to be too hard, it’s going to take longer than they think, their own work will get in the way or their personal life will get in the way. They might get sick, a family member might get sick, their house could catch fire or flood, their car could get stolen, or their identity could be stolen. They could get snowed in on vacation or injured while snowboarding.
In the past 13 years running my agency, Bourn Creative, I have run into every one of these problems and more that have delayed projects. While some problems and delays are a result of procrastination and laziness, many problems your clients have are out of their control.
Work with them to come up with a solution or action plan, or adjust the project timeline as needed. Remember that you’re working with real people with real feelings, and they are at some point going to need extra support beyond the technical support.
9. Ask questions
When a client knows what they want or thinks they know what they want, it can be really easy, especially when you’re really busy, to get lazy and become an implementer instead of a project leader and the expert hired. But you have to be careful just giving the client exactly what they ask for, because they don’t know what they don’t know and what they ask for may not be what’s best.
Listen to what your client wants and needs, then dig deeper and ask the important questions to discover the why behind each requirement.
By doing this, you can provide higher quality consulting, make better recommendations, and create a better overall product that will help your client achieve their goals. When you ask the right questions and learn the reasoning behind the client’s actions and desires, you can provide higher quality consulting, make better recommendations and suggestions, and create a better overall product that will help them achieve their goals.
10. Look to the future
Yes, you need to know the client’s problem, understand the results desired, and create a solution to deliver the desired results. But you can’t just think about what the client wants and needs right now. You also need to investigate what the client plans on doing in the future and what their vision is for their business.
The last thing you want to have happen is for a client to invest thousands of dollars with you to build a website and in a year when they want to add a new feature, be told they have to start over. By looking to the future early, you can create a solution that not only deliver exactly what the client needs right now, but a solution that can grow and evolve with them as their business grows and evolves.
11. Send a handwritten note
Bills. Junk. Garbage. Bills. Junk. Bills. Garbage … That’s the experience most people have when going through their mail. But what if you changed that? What if your clients experienced something different? What if the next time they check the mail, they experience: Bills. Junk. Garbage. Bills. Junk. Bills. Oooh! What’s this?!
With so much communication and follow up happening digitally, it’s easy to stand out from the crowd by taking time to send your clients a handwritten note in a real greeting card, in a colorful envelope. Thank them for hiring you, welcome them to the project, congratulate them on the launch of their website, or let them know how much you enjoyed working with them.
12. Provide bonuses
Before beginning your work together, you provided the client a proposal, they read through it, signed it, and paid a deposit. This means that your client knows exactly what they get for the investment made. While delivering everything promised on time, within budget, and error-free will ensure the client is satisfied, providing some surprise bonuses along the way can turn a satisfied client into a true raving fan.
This is exactly why Profitable Project Plan, my done-for-you course on client management, includes several bonus eBooks on topics from website content and SEO to links and email marketing to crafting a strong elevator pitch. When these valuable ebooks are gifted to clients as bonuses to help them get more out of their website, they are thrilled and over-the-moon excited to get them for free.
13. Champion the objectives
It is inevitable that at some point you’re going to have a client who doesn’t agree with your design decisions, wants to make changes you don’t agree with, or questions or second-guesses your work. Instead of getting defensive, take a deep breath and stick to the objectives outlined at the very beginning of the project.
If you always put the core objectives and the client’s business first and make every decision based on achieving those objectives and improving their business, it will not only be easier to get the client onboard with your decisions, but they’ll be happy that you’re thinking things through and helping them make the right decisions.
14. Throw in an extra
If you worry about scope creep and how to best deal with extra requests that are outside a project’s original agreed upon scope of work, you’re not alone. It can be tough to say no to extra requests from clients, especially when in some cases you give an inch and the client demands a mile. It can also be tough to talk about change orders, increased fees and extended timelines.
But what’s not very tough is saying yes and telling your client that you are more than happy to take care of that extra request for them. The key is planning ahead for that accommodation so your time is still covered.
When estimating the project, add in an hour or two of bonus time. This way you have a little wiggle room to be able to accommodate an extra request from your client without working for free. Just make sure you set boundaries on the work by saying something like:
“Of course! Now that is outside the scope of work in our original agreement, but I am more than happy to take care of this one thing for you at no extra cost! If you need anything else, just let me know and I’ll be happy to provide you with a simple change order.”
15. Check in regularly
Throughout your work together, you’re going to speak with your client off and on about the design, revisions, decisions that need to be made, content, launch planning, and their website training. All of those conversations are centered around specific tasks related to the project deliverables and milestones, which is good, but not enough.
Check in with your client separate from your project-specific communications to see how things are going — and don’t wait until something has gone wrong or there is a problem. Instead, reach out at regular intervals during the project to make sure the client is having a great experience and their expectations are being met or exceeded.
Making this practice a habit will also help build stronger relationships with your clients and encourage them to stay with you longer.
16. Own mistakes quickly
If a project does hit a snag, there is a problem, or a mistake is made, address it right away and own it without hesitation. Don’t try to pass the blame, throw another under the bus, or deflect. Take ownership of the issue, admit what happened, present the solution, and apologize.
Most clients understand that no one and no company is perfect and that accidents happen, and they are usually open to your solutions. What they won’t understand or tolerate is avoidance, neglect, procrastination, delays and blame.
When things go wrong, it’s not fun for anyone, but when you check your ego at the door and always do what is best for your brand and the project at hand, you can’t go wrong.
If you want to become a client referral magnet…
Those with many years of experience successfully freelancing or running a service-based business will often tell you that while they had to hustle for clients in the early years, the majority of their business now comes from referrals. Imagine that — having other people seek you out because someone they know told them how great you are!
It’s a pretty amazing phenomenon. My web design agency has been in business for 13 years and when referrals became our No. 1 source of new business, everything else got easier and less stressful because instead of us searching for new clients, new clients were coming to us.
There is no secret to building a referral-based business. All you need to do to become a referral magnet is do the highest quality of work possible at all times and provide remarkable service that exceeds your clients’ expectations over and over — and with these 16 tips, you’ve got everything you need to make that happen.
Also published on Medium.