How to Get More Design Referrals


Freelancers and small design companies do not have large marketing budgets. There may be a few dollars here or there to spend on Google AdWords, Facebook ads or perhaps a small print campaign, but by and large we survive on one things: referrals.

How to Get More Design Referrals

When someone begins his/her freelance design career, all we have are referrals: from our friends, schoolmates, even our parents and family. As we land our first clients and complete our first design jobs, it’s important to realize the importance of referrals and think about how to maximize them. The more clients we get, the more opportunity for referrals, which brings in more clients, and so on. It grows exponentially and, if you take steps to ensure you get more referrals, you may not have to spend a cent on advertising. Ever.

Make the Project Easy

You know that friend of yours? The one with whom it’s always just “easy” to hang out with, no matter how long it’s been or how different your lives have become? You want to be that designer for your clients. Every single decision you make during the project process should help make the whole project easy… even enjoyable.

I remember hearing a quote that’s stuck with me (the source of which I’ve forgotten): “Clients don’t know the difference between good & great, but they will remember how they were treated”. Now, this isn’t meant to say you can get away with less than your best work (we’ll discuss that in the next point); what it’s saying is that how your treat your client (and their project, by proxy) is what they’ll remember most about you. If you make everything easy, they will enjoy the process and your chances of getting a positive referral will skyrocket. On the flipside, if you make things difficult, your clients will not refer you (and probably won’t come back to you themselves).

When I say make things easy, I mean everything: from little stuff (numbering your logo design concepts so they can refer to “concept #1” as opposed to “the one with the blue swoosh, but not the dark blue swoosh one”) to the big stuff (accepting payment, developing the CMS theme so it functions in a simple, logical manner). Leave no stone un-easied.

Do Great Work

Your work can’t just look great. That’s only good work. Your work can’t just function great. That is also only good work. Your work needs to look great and function great. That is great design work, and that is what you have to deliver to your clients.

Your level of greatness will raise as you get better, and thus your old design work will not be as great as your new design work. However, it’s important to feel that you did everything you could to deliver top-notch work – the best you could possibly do at this point in time. It’s not always easy – some clients want ugly and ineffective things, to be blunt – but do your best. That’s all you can do. Be honest with yourself, as well.

If you do truly great work, and explain to your client WHY it is great (without being a pompous jerk), then your chances of a positive referral will go up.

Make the Referral Process Simple

The simplicity principle (I just made that up) that applies to web design applies to your referral process as well. The more simple it is for someone to do something, the greater the likelihood of them actually doing it. If your goal is to get people to register for a website, make the process simple. If your goal is to get more referrals, make the process simple.

How? It depends on you & your client, but here are some thoughts:

  • if you have a page on your site that is frequently accessed by existing clients, perhaps add a “Refer Us!” button to it somewhere
  • when you send along your final invoice, perhaps add a note in the email or invoice asking for a referral if they enjoyed working with you
  • perhaps you have an email referral template you can share with your clients so they don’t have to spend the time writing it up themselves; they can just throw their name on it and send it out to their contacts

There’s myriad ways to make the process simple; brainstorm, ask your clients, ask your fellow designers. Give one method a shot, evaluate it, and try another. The bottom line is: a simple referral process will lead to more referrals.

Have a Referral Program with Incentive

We live in a me-first society; most people won’t do anything unless it provides a benefit to them. With that in mind, try creating a referral program for your existing clients. The key to the success of this referral program is that it has to have some incentive for people to use it.

A basic version? For every referral someone sends to you that turns into an actual project, you send them $100. Or perhaps you give them a discount on their next design service. Or perhaps you give them a complimentary pass to a tanning salon. Whatever it is, it needs to a) be enticing to the referrer, and b) be sustainable for your business. $100 might seem like a lot, but if you’re referred a client who turns into a $5000 web project, who cares? That’s $4900 profit for you.

Again, test the waters, see what works, revamp what doesn’t. But referral programs do work if done right.

Just Ask

The final point is the most straightforward: just ask. If you have clients whom you know love working with you, just ask them to refer you to their contacts. Better yet, ask if they can send you 5 contacts who might need your services – then the ball is in your court to contact them. Simple, but it works. Just remember to be courteous and don’t be pushy.

What About You?

How big of a role do referrals play in your business? Huge? None? In-between? Do you have any tips & tricks you’ve learned over the years? Let us know in the comments.

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