How to find work: referrals

I’m systematically working through all 10 ways I find freelance work, unpacking the details of how to approach each item on the list. I’ve already covered listings, magnetism, and asking. Now it’s time for a classic: referrals.

Referrals are one of the major engines of a successful freelance career, and getting good ones should never be far from your mind. Referrals can come from many sources: former full-time colleagues, current or former freelance clients, friends, acquaintances, family members, that random guy you mentioned your work to once at a dinner party.

Sometimes people will refer you of their own accord, completely surprising you with an unsolicited incoming inquiry — this is one of the most delightful things that happens to freelancers.  

But oftentimes it helps to request referrals, or at least to remind potential referrers that you’re actively looking for new clients and would love them to pass your name on to anyone who’s in need of your kind of. services.

Asking for referrals is an underutilized option because many freelancers — especially women — fear they will seem demanding. But proactive is the only way to be if you’re going to make freelancing work over the long run.

Here’s an example of how asking for referrals has helped me: I left a full-time job to go freelance and told all my colleagues there that I would be looking for gigs. When one of them went to another organization soon thereafter, he referred me to the communications director there, who hired me to write for their website.

In the years since, I have been referred from department to department at that organization, getting thousands of dollars of follow-on work of various kinds (including a new project for a new-to-me department that will be starting shortly, a good eight years after my first gig at that organization).

Even a decade after I left that full-time job, another of my colleagues whom I had stayed in touch with hired me to write for the organization she now works for.

So keep in touch with people after you leave your job to go freelance. They are apt to move around to various organizations and may refer you to others at their workplaces. You should also ask your freelance clients to refer you to anyone they know who may be looking for someone good.

And it should go without saying that the best way to get referrals is to inspire them with your awesomeness. Deliver good work by deadline, be professional, and concentrate on being easy-to-work-with. Make your clients want to gush about you.

The reason that referrals will be one of your most valuable sources of work throughout your freelancing career is that word-of-mouth is marketing gold. Think about it — when your neighbor gushes about his plumber, that’ll pretty much win you over, right? Next time your pipe springs a leak, he’ll be your first call.

People are often wiling to hire you on faith if someone they trust has recommended you. One solid referral is worth 100 cold pitches.

So put referrals at the top of your mental list of best ways to get new work. It’s easy to forget to ask for them or to decide it’s not worth the discomfort of putting yourself out there that way.

But I would wager that rarely has a successful, long-term freelance career been built without a decent infusion of referrals.

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