There are plenty of ways for freelancers to get project leads: job marketplaces like oDesk or Elance, referrals from past clients, people finding your website through a Google search, and so on.
But we all know these acquisition channels vary in quality. Given the choice, I think we’d all prefer a strong referral from a wonderful past client over competing with potentially hundreds of others for a gig on a job board.
So with that said, this article is about referrals — the holy grail of project leads. One of the best things you can do as the owner of your freelancing business is to increase the amount of referral sources you have. The more people you have to refer you, the more direct leads you’re able to get.
But most of us don’t do much to proactively get more referrals or to expand our referral network. We each have a “sphere of influence” — people who know what we provide, and are able to recommend us to others (or just hire us outright). Let’s talk about how you can both grow your sphere of influence, and condition those in it to become prime referral sources for you.
How referrals work
You have a network.
And this network consists of people who know about what you do and are either in a position of hiring you or can refer you to others. Your network generally consists of friends, family, acquaintances, and your past clients.
Past clients are generally always the most valuable referral sources. After all, someone’s more likely to trust somebody who paid you and got great results over your mom trumping her son or daughter (sorry, moms!). But the problem with past clients are that they’re slow to gain. Freelancers with a long work history and a lot of clients get more referrals; they have numbers on their side.
To get referrals, two conditions need to be met:
- Somebody needs to know you’re capable of delivering business value.
- Somebody needs to remember to recommend you when the moment’s right.
Usually, that first step — demonstrating that you have something to offer — happens as a result of working with somebody. You do good work, and you’ve provided value to your client. They now know this.
But this is limiting. It takes time (selling, executing, delivering) to end up with a “past client,” and your sphere of influence (that is, your network) can only grow as fast as you can deliver new projects.
…See where I’m going with this?
Your number of strong referral sources is limited to how many past clients you have. And if you want more referrals, you need more referral sources. But your time is a finite value, so those referral sources are slow to grow.
Step 1: Influence a lot of people at once
It’s important to remember that while value is typically delivered through completing projects, it’s not exclusive to that. You deliver value by recommending tools like Mailchimp or Wufoo to somebody you meet at an event. You’re delivering value anytime you make somebody better off than they were before.
Let’s get meta for a second. Think about what I’m doing with this article. I have about 25,000 people on my newsletter who received this article in their inbox. In order for me to convey what I wanted to get across in this post, I don’t need to have 25,000 individual conversations. Likewise, when I used to host a lot of educational seminars for my agency, I influenced about 20-30 people at once; I didn’t need to sink 20-30 hours into one-off conversations.
Creating an insiders list, as I covered here, is a great way to kickstart expanding your sphere of influence. This leads to setting yourself up as an influencer for a pool of people who receive updates from you, either as email newsletters or via in-person events.
And I’ve published a few articles here over the years on hosting seminars and webinars (“How I Made $312.50 An Hour Teaching Local Business Owners” and “Borrowing An Audience: How Seminars Can Win You New Business”), which are fantastic for influencing a handful of people at a time. And it doesn’t need to be fancy; it can be as simple as making yourself available for a group discussion at a local coffee shop. And you don’t need to target people who you hope are direct matches for your services — you just need to show that you’re capable of providing business value.
Step 2: Condition over time
I talk to, and often consult for, companies that want to get into this “email thing.” These companies virtually never email their audiences, and when they do — a ton of people unsubscribe. They’re often left wondering what they said that caused so many to rush off their list.
What they sometimes fail to realize is that no one is as interested in their business as they are. While they’re thinking day in and day out about their business because, well, it’s their business…their audience isn’t. Their audience is going along with their lives. So when a company emails their list that hasn’t heard a peep from them in months, or even years, no one should be surprised when people think, “…who are you again? Unsubscribe *click.*”
You can’t expect your clients or your sphere of influence to always be thinking about you, or to have you at the front of their minds when they’re chatting with somebody who needs something you can provide if you’re not in regular communication with them.
Setup a followup conditioning sequence for all of your clients, and don’t be afraid to email people — individually, in segments, or your entire list. Just make sure that you’re always delivering value. If you’re going to email your sphere of influence or ask someone to coffee, make sure you know how you plan on making them better as a result of either reading your email or meeting with you.
It’s a numbers game
Not everyone who attends a seminar of yours, is a part of your insider’s list, and so on, is going to refer you or become a client of yours. That mindset needs to be done away with. Not everyone is going to be a good fit for you, and you for them. And if the only value you deliver is forced on people who you need to become clients, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities.
If all of my 25,000 subscribers were customers, I’d be very, very well off. But they’re not. And I don’t expect that, nor do I want to cut people off who never self-select to enroll in one of my advanced courses or whatnot. Ultimately, it’s a numbers game. The bigger my audience, the more sales I get. The bigger your sphere of influence, the more referrals you’ll get.
In summary, you’re going to want to influence as many people as you can at scale. Show them that you know what you’re talking about, and if they decide that you’re capable of making them better off, leave it up to them to refer you to others or become a client (and, of course, there are ways to increase the likelihood of that happening).
Looking for a deep dive into the specific tactics (what to write, how to structure and set up your seminars, etc.) that will help you grow and condition your sphere of influence? You should check out The Blueprint!