How to Ask for a Referral Without Sounding Like a Jerk

referralsIt’s a lousy truth, but if you want referrals, you have to ask for them. No matter how great your work is, no matter how wonderful you are, most clients aren’t thinking about referring you to anyone.

In this post, we’ll share the story of one talented designer who failed to get a referral. We’ll also tell you an easy way to get your clients to give you referrals.

Why Clients Don’t Give You a Referral

Did you ever wonder why your clients don’t give you more referrals?

It’s not because they’re mean or because they don’t want you to succeed; it’s because giving you a referral never crosses their minds.

I’ve seen this happen with my own two eyes. In the company I used to work for, we contracted out our design services to a very talented guy. He would come in to the office to present his work, and he was always great to talk to and fun to have around. He put out quality work, too. If you’d asked anyone in the company, he was a killer designer.

I don’t think we ever referred him once.

In fact, I watched an opportunity for a referral go whizzing right by. My boss’ friend, who ran his own company, came in for a lunch date and was complaining to my boss about the terrible designer he’d hired. My boss sympathized and hoped he’d find someone who could fix the problem.

It didn’t occur to him to refer our own freelance designer. He might have thought of it had his friend specifically asked if he knew a good designer.

But, the friend didn’t ask, my boss didn’t volunteer, and that was that.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Freelancers don’t ask for referrals because we think we’ll sound pushy, or unprofessional, or, in the worst case scenario, like a complete jerk. These are valid concerns. Many people who ask for referrals come off sounding like a bad used car salesmen.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to ask for referrals. There’s nothing stopping you from doing it the right way. Here’s your number-one tip for asking for a referral without sounding like a jerk:

Make it about the other guy

When Should You Ask for a Referral?

The best time to ask for a referral is when your client is raving about what a fantastic job you just did on your last project. Let’s say you’re a copywriter, and he’s telling you that he’s worked with dozens of writers in the past and no one has been able to hit just the right note the way you have.

“I’m so pleased you like it,” you say. “I know it can be rough finding a good writer. There are a lot of hacks out there. I’ve heard some horror stories.”

That’s his cue. Usually, your client will he’ll launch telling you about his own bad experience or that of another company he knows. Let him, and be sympathetic about it. Then say this:

“Well, listen, if you know of any other companies who are having a rough time finding good work, feel free to pass on my name. Actually, if you have a few names in mind, I could just drop them a line myself and save you the trouble.”

See what just happened? Instead of saying that you want a referral so that you can get more clients, you’re saying that you want a referral so that these companies–who your client knows and likes–won’t have to deal with shoddy work anymore.

You’re not being a jerk. You’re being helpful. You’re being the nice guy.

And guess what? Not only will your client give you the referrals, he’ll think you’re a great guy for asking.

Not bad for a task you always considered the low point of marketing, right?

Share Your Stories

What method do you use to get referrals?

Share your stories in the comments.


  1. says

    Good tip, but what if you don’t find yourself in that opportunity? Should you just not ask for a referral at all then. I think this article should have covered a few more scenarios.

  2. says

    That’s an excellent tip. I find that I’ve been pretty lucky at getting referrals so far, but it obviously never hurts to be nice, offer to help and find yourself with some new business.

  3. says

    Great advice and a very gracious way to ask for referrals. Most of us don’t leverage this enough and that’s sad as the best way to find ideal clients is through the ones you already have! I work with a client who helps professionals leverage referrals and he advocates having a formal referral program. It makes sense to not allow it to be a casual process but part of your marketing system.

  4. says

    A good idea, and one that i actually already put in place when i can. Unfortunately it was last employer who got the work though.

    I’m starting out my own company and will continue to use this practice though.

    Another is to incetivise it, if they like your work, say to them that if they reccommended you to anyone who took work with you, they could get a discount on future work you may doe for them, of give them a percentage of any fee they bring in.

  5. says

    Great Post! very helpful, I would have to say that word of mouth is the best advertising you can get and the best way to get new clients. This is a great way to ask for a referral and still be professional about it. Great article!

  6. says

    I’ve actually found that clients are pretty willing to send their friends and colleagues to me, if they happen to know someone in need of design services. Especially those clients who work with me consistently, because it’s always fresh in their mind.

    Still, it’s always a good idea to provide a little reminder…and maybe while you’re at it, some incentive. Every once in awhile I will send out a promotional offer for referrals, usually to my clients via email. I will offer x-amount of dollars off certain types of projects, or a certain percentage off their next invoice in exchange for every referral they send my way. Not only do people love to get a good deal, this serves as a pleasant reminder without “sounding like a jerk”, as we’d all like to avoid.

    And as this post mentions, any time your client is expressing their enthusiasm for a job well done is a good opportunity to graciously request they keep you in mind for referrals. Chances are, they’ll be more than happy to spread the word. And it may end up being helpful to them if they can make another contact’s life easier and make an impression by sending them directly to a skilled professional. And that way, everybody’s happy!

    The other best practice is just to do your best work and give your best service at all times. I’ve even had my clients’ vendors (printers, manufacturers, and other contacts with whom I’ve worked directly) ask me if they could send some of their other clients my way for design services, because they found me easy to work with or were impressed with the files I sent them or I went above in beyond in delivering what they needed. You never know where there will be a networking opportunity, so always put your best foot forward!

  7. says

    I also put a section on my invoice that has a referral appreciation incentive, which I offer them 15% deduction on their next project.

    Total Cost
    Referral Appreciation 15%

  8. says

    would it be wrongly perceived to just say : “hey, if you know someone who needs a web designer, pass on my email/url to them!”, or “would they mind if I contacted them?”

  9. says

    You are so right….Great article you’ve put it clear and simple ‘You’re being the nice guy’ if you make it sound like you just want clients your not gonna get them on board with you.
    Modesty and humility are good trates and if your really good at your profession, that word of mouth should spread like wild fire!

  10. says

    Excellent advice, thanks James ;) my wife is a big fan of your blog.

    In some cases I will offer a current client a referral fee of 5-10% of the first invoice amount (after VAT) if they pass my details on to a new customer.

  11. says

    Hey James,

    I think word of mouth advertising has really done wonders in my freelance writing/ translating job. Although I only focus on helping Malaysian IMs and entrepreneurs by offering my services, they also referred me to their clicks and they did came knocking on my door. It also saved me the extra $$ in advertising my gig :)

  12. says

    Great advice! I’ve thought about asking for referrals but never knew when it was the right time to ask. I think it takes some getting used to for you feel comfortable asking but I think it will be worth it. I’ll make this a habit in the future and will even ask past satisfied clients for referrals as well.



  1. […] Make expectations clear. Ask the organization to put clearly, in writing, what the organization expects from you: what your deliverables are, what quality is expected, and by when. That said, your own expectations should also be clear. In your application letter, be forthright that you expect a testimonial or feedback in writing, after your work is completed, and if they are happy with it. After your volunteering stint, thank the organization for the opportunity and say something like, “I would appreciate it if you could refer me to business owners you know who could use my services.” Read this post for more advice on how to ask for referrals. […]

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