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Six steps to increasing referrals

Your best resource for bringing in new clients? The clients you already have.

What’s not to love when friends say nice things about you? That includes marketing referrals: when old clients, existing clients, or partner agencies recommend your service or agency to their friends. You get free promotion, your client gets some street cred, and their friend gets a great recommendation.

In our Mailchimp & Co Benchmark Report 2021 for agencies and freelancers, 42% of agencies and 37% of freelancers told us that referrals were their best strategy for winning new business.

Clients that come through referrals are often more loyal and less likely to churn—because someone you both trust has already given a stamp of approval. And referral leads are easier, faster, and cheaper to close, according to Yiuwin Tsang, who works in marketing and operations for the Agency Collective and founded B2B marketing and business development consultancy Disruptive Thinking.

If referrals are so great, how can you get more of them? Here are a few of our tips for generating more referrals and making the most of them:

1. “Do your job,” and your clients will refer you.

Before even thinking about referrals, focus on your work and what you can do to grow your clients’ businesses. And always think of ways to level up: New integrations, better reporting, marketing automations, stores, and other tools can help.

MaryAnn Pfeiffer, a Mailchimp partner who runs 108 Degrees Digital Marketing, gets 100% of her business from referrals. She mentioned the quote often used by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick: “Do your job.”

“If I really do my job, I’m not looking at my client as a check at the end of the month; I’m there to help their business grow,” she said. “Take the time to spend it with your clients, and get to know their business and how it works.”

MaryAnn spoke about clients who text her at 3 AM—“I’ve learned to keep my phone off at night”—because they know she’s always working to make their business better. “If you build that level of trust and relationship with someone, they’re going to remember you and refer you. We know how to be seen, and we want to make others be seen. Be your own client. By being there and being out there, you’ll draw people in.”

2. Be specific about who you’d really like to work with, and define exactly what you’re looking for.

Referral work is incredibly valuable, but it can also be burdensome—you don’t want to end up with a high volume of work that’s time-consuming and doesn’t fit your business model.

Flo Powell of Midnight Communications, a PR and digital content agency based in Brighton, UK, said that referrals are the best way to get new business. She emphasized the importance of having a referral “elevator pitch” to quickly express to a client or contact what it is that you do, what you’re brilliant at, and what you’re looking for.

What do you value most in a client relationship? MaryAnn added that you should look at your business plan and specify the length of the contract, size and location of the business, type of project, whether your potential client has a marketing team, and any other criteria that you feel are important to your work.

Whether or not you end up actually asking these clients for a referral, it can be helpful for your business plan to create a list of the top 10 clients who love what you do and would be happy to refer you to others. Think about the qualities you most value in a client relationship—then build your prospect list based on those findings. Once you know what the right projects might look like, it’s easier to keep an eye out for them.

3. Be proactive. Don’t be afraid to reach out to ask for referrals or set concrete goals within your team.

Let your clients know when you’ve got some capacity opening up and that you’d appreciate a referral to work with more clients like them.

Flo Powell gives one example of how to ask for a referral: “I’m so pleased you’re happy with the work. We’re looking to grow our business in [this specific area/your area.] Do you have any contacts who might also be interested that you could refer us to?”

Planting the seed and opening a conversation is the most important part of asking for a referral, according to Neil Kent of Chapter Communications. He and his team send frequent client satisfaction surveys, asking clients what would motivate them to refer them and building on honest feedback and communication.

Setting targets to call a certain number of people each week to ask for referrals can also help. Consider creating scripts to get the ball rolling. Run through each script yourself, then workshop it with team members to help them make it their own. Enlist an approachable client or two for practice sessions. And you could run a friendly competition between teams to help build momentum—or even create a rewards program.

“Don’t be embarrassed about asking clients for referrals,” Neil said. His team gave a small financial reward to anyone who sent them a contact for a potential new client. “Having the rewards scheme gave us an easy way to talk about it and open a dialogue. They might say, ‘Oh actually, we might have someone who would be interested … and they’ll get back with three contacts.”

The more you do it, the better results you’ll get. The worst thing that can happen? They say no, you ask them why, and you can learn something about how to improve your business from there on out.

4. Referrals can come organically, too—just put yourself out there.

Keep in mind that asking directly for referrals may not be for everyone, especially if you’ve already built up a network of partners and clients who know your work, or if you want to avoid getting additional work that doesn’t fit your business model.

A lot of clients may not necessarily know what you need in a referral. Letting the client decide who to refer may not be as good as simply putting yourself out there and letting the referral come indirectly, according to MaryAnn, who has been in the business for 20 years.

“If a client I’ve been working with for 5 years sends someone over, I’ll feel obliged to take it on, but we may not have the bandwidth to take on what doesn’t fit with my business model,” she said.

MaryAnn said that most of her referrals come without her directly asking for them, sometimes through existing and past clients, other times through seeing her listing in the Experts Directory, a searchable directory of Mailchimp partners who are certified Mailchimp experts. She and other partners also get referrals through public channels and DMs in the Mailchimp Partner Slack, a community of several hundred agency owners and freelancers in Mailchimp & Co.

5. Regardless of what you decide, it’s all about relationships. Keep referral conversations natural and fun.

Flo suggested getting to know your clients face-to-face—in addition to interfacing with them about business strategy—whether it’s for lunch, drinks, or anything else you think of.

“When it comes to getting referrals from existing clients, it’s about building relationships with that client and on a personal level as a business partner,” Flo said. “We want to be an extension of your client’s team but you want to go one step further—you want to be their confidant.”

And any conversation about referrals should come as part of a natural conversation. Remember that conversation is one of the best ways to build relationships, and referrals are based on relationships.

6. Say thank you to clients who help you out. Give them feedback that reinforces what a great referral looks like.

Referrals are valuable, and when your clients give you referrals, it’s a big favor—remember to thank them! Whether that’s through a small gift, taking them out to lunch, or a referral rewards program, you’ll want to show your appreciation for the trust that client puts in you.

“They give us the business because they want to look good as well and give whoever it is they are referring to someone they can trust and know will do a great job,” Flo said.

Whether or not a referral turns into a client, you’re getting a chance to meet someone new and talk to them about their work, which will inform how your business will go forward. So make it fun—and know that there’s no better piece of business than that coming from a strong recommendation.

Quotes from this article are sourced from The Agency Collective's event on referrals from May 6, 2021. View the full recording here.

Download our 2021 Benchmark Report for Agencies and Freelancers.

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