By Georgina Laidlaw

The Truth About Word-of-Mouth Referrals

By Georgina Laidlaw

How many times have you heard that word-of-mouth referrals are among the freelancer’s best leads? I’ll bet you’ve lost count. Ever freelancing pundit argues the case for word-of-mouth referrals, implying:

  • They’re pretty easy to get: do a good job and your clients will tell all their contacts. Simple.
  • All you need is one client to tell one contact! That’s the power of word of mouth!
  • They’re a really cost-effective way to land new work.

I win most of my projects through word-of-mouth referrals, but I have to disagree with these fundamental points. I think if you’re going to rely heavily on word of mouth to build your freelance client list, you need to take three crucial steps.

1. Build a network

It’s not impossible for you to do a good job for a client, and receive a lead for another job as a consequence—but it’s not likely, either. What you really need, if you’re going to be able to actually rely on this as a means of attracting clients continuously, is a network of people. Ideally, that network will be fairly close-knit and willing to collaborate to pass on referrals, help contacts access good professionals, and so on.

My network is big—say 20 or 30 people—and since the businesses involved are all fairly or highly innovative, they have ongoing needs for my skills. Many of them operate in similar market spaces, which means they’re likely to be interested in what I’m working on with other clients, and that the work I do for each client builds the skills I need to help the others.


2. Build a presence

It’s one thing to have a network; it’s another to keep them informed of what you’re doing (or: to give them ideas about the kinds of work you could do for them).

Online social and professional networks have made the job much easier than it was before, but only for some—if your target clients aren’t using these media, you’ll have to build a presence through the media they are using.

Whether you’re publishing articles in relevant industry journals, speaking publicly at niche events, or leading new initiatives within your market, maintaining a strong, reliable, ongoing presence is essential. Among other things, it allows those who have never bought your services to “sample” your philosophy, credentials, and professionalism from afar—to try before they buy.

3. Keep talking

Most freelancers dislike marketing their work, but communicating with your network is essential if they’re to know what kinds of work you’re doing, what you want to work on, and where you might fit in with their plans.

By “communicating with your network”, I mean having conversations, throwing ideas around, asking questions, inviting feedback and suggestions, saying hi—there’s no good or bad way to go about this. It all depends on you, your clients, and what approach suits everyone concerned. There are a few golden rules for this kind of “talking,” though:

  1. Don’t just talk about yourself.
  2. Don’t use these conversations to fish for work.
  3. Don’t ask for (or share) information that’s likely to be confidential.

Think “collaboration” rather than “contact maintenance”—that way, you put yourself in a position to learn from your network, and innovate with them, as well as to share information that may help them, 24/7.

How heavily do you rely on word-of-mouth referrals to get gigs? What do you do to encourage them?

Image by stock.xchng user duchesssa.

  • Mo

    Hi Georgina,

    Thank you for this post. I agree with the points you made. Good to hear someone else is thinking the same as me, as opposed to insisting that social media is the thing these days and you will sink without it.

    All my referrals came from word of mouth, and not by “fishing” for them, but like you said just having a presence, engaging with my network and being genuinely interested in their business and life.

    Thank you again


    from UK

  • Andrew Cooper

    Great article Georgina!

    I agree with your 3 crucial steps, and one thing that stuck out for me that I’m constantly thinking about is #2 from Step 3 that is: Don’t use these conversations to fish for work. Too many times have I seen businesses trying to sell to other businesses and it’s just so wrong in my view, they really need to relax and go about it a different way.

    I don’t rely heavily on word of mouth referrals, I think just like with eating you need a healthy balanced diet of different tactics to gaining new clients / work. I don’t try to encourage word of mouth referrals either, I don’t push anything with it, I give my clients not 1 but 3 business cards. The client gets to keep 1 to keep in touch with me and they can use the other 2 to hand to their own business contacts.

    Andrew Cooper

  • Georgina Laidlaw

    Hey guys,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The “fishing” angle (haHA!) is obviously a no-go for you too. I think it can be difficult for new freelancers to get their heads around the idea, though.

    It’s easy to think “I’m speaking to a client—I need to sell myself” when you first start out. I have the feeling that’s why “networking” got such a bad name in the first place. If we treat conversations with professional and industry contacts as an opportunity to learn, we’re in a much better position to benefit from those exchanges—wherever they lead.

  • Jeremy Palmer

    Great advice. There’s some detailed books on the subject. One of my favorites is Business by Referral. It was written by the guy who started BNI (the world’s largest referral network). It covers these points (and more) in great detail.

  • xhtmlcoder

    I’d agree word-of-mouth is the main way people get to work with me; it’s never failed in my case. Neither has one needed to use social media, fishing or marketing.

    In fact I don’t even need to have a ‘portfolio’ and if people want to see one typically I’ll tell them straight “I don’t provide portfolios”. Alternatively I’d typically show them examples of my ‘presence’ and that’s all it usually takes for me win their respect plus a little explanation of my skills (I am fairly specialist though so have an edge).

    No man is an island, and without a network you don’t typically get that far… Therefore if someone is headhunting me; I can quite easily refer them to somebody else if I do not strictly want that type of work and vice versa. Though like was mentioned you have to take a genuine interest in the potential client.

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