Client Referrals – The Key to a Healthy Writing Biz

When you have a successful writing business, one of the questions people keep asking is how you get work. My answer to that is that most of my work comes from referrals and word-of-mouth. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. When I started my writing business I had no contacts – zip, zilch, zero. Those were the bad old days, when every piece of work was a one-off and not that well paid either. Between you and me, I’m glad those days are behind me.

Referrals - The Key to a Healthy Writing Biz

So what changed?

I’m not going to pretend that I suddenly became the high queen of client relations – I didn’t. The referrals I get today are a direct reflection of the hard work I have put into providing an excellent service for my clients.

Laying the Groundwork for Client Referrals

You see, if people are going to recommend you, you have to do good work. And, false modesty aside, I do. My clients say I have a knack for understanding what they want even when they haven’t clearly explained it, delivering on time or even early and producing work that exceeds their expectations. (That doesn’t mean I do everything they ask, either – giving sound advice is part of the package and building a relationship of trust sometimes means telling them what to avoid.)

Anyway, the point is that by providing a good service for my clients I was putting in the ground work that would lead to future referrals. Here are some examples of how that has worked.

Referral Success Story No. 1

I first met my client CJ more than six years ago when he was running a marketing campaign for a UK gift items firm. I followed a lead and applied to do some writing, which I did for the short term contract it involved. I thought that was that, but a year or so later, CJ needed a writer for his own marketing projects and came to me. I’m still working with him now.

Referral Success Story No. 2

Of course, client referrals also come from other sources. At one time I chatted with a bunch of people on Twitter and elsewhere about the location independent lifestyle. That led to a short gig writing for the Location Independent site and also introduced me to some other people, including Andy Hayes who was also part of that community. Based on our interaction and the posts he’d read, he recommended me to someone else looking for a regular blog writer. That was around five years ago and I’m still working with them now. So interaction on social media, forums and discussion groups can pay off in terms of referrals.

Thinking Strategically about Client Referrals

Client-referrals-writingBoth of those situations happened with very little input from me, and I’ve got many other examples, too. In my experience, working with one client often leads to work with another. Publishing posts on Unbounce led to a gig writing for Crazy Egg which has led to gigs writing for other people. As a writer, my published work passively markets my skills and helps clients to find me – referral success story number 3.

However, since I hooked up with Tea Silvestre and the Word Carnival bloggers, I’ve given much more thought to being strategic about working with clients. And there are plenty of tools to help me foster those same relationships.

(As an aside, let me say that whether I’m talking to clients formally or participating in an online group or forum, I don’t have time or energy to be anything but genuine. Nor do I go into any relationship thinking about what I can get out of it. With clients, I want to get paid but I also want to have fun and deliver value.)

Building Relationships with my Clients

Anyhoo, since the system (let me pretend I had one, OK?) I have is already working for me, what I needed to do was find tools that made that process easier. And just to be clear, the process I’m talking about is deepening my relationship with clients so they want to send work my way when the opportunity arises in a totally natural and authentic way – slow marketing rules, y’all! Here are some of the ways I do that:

  • Since email is my primary tool for communicating with clients, it makes sense to use Rapportive to get rich profiles of my contacts. This tool brings together all their social media profiles and recent updates so I can see whether I am following them and what they are talking about. If something interests me, I can click to the update from my email window and reply.
  • I use Twitter lists and Google+ circles to follow my clients and I check periodically to see what they are saying. It’s also a good way to see if they have shared some of my work so I can thank them, respond, reshare or retweet.
  • I write LinkedIn recommendations for my clients and I endorse them too. Nine times out of ten they will return the favor. (I haven’t done it for all of them yet, but I’m working on it.)
  • I follow up on work I’ve done for them (especially for new clients) to make sure that they are happy. I also ask for testimonials, let them know when the testimonial has been published on my site and encourage them to refer me to others. (If you don’t ask, you don’t get.)
  • I email them a couple of times a year to check in and to let them know what I’m doing. This includes a thanks for your business ecard (which I create myself) which I send to all current/regular clients at the end of each year.

In addition to this, I communicate regularly with my clients during a job. As well as work-related communications, I find it never hurts to send seasonal or holiday wishes or enquire about how weekends or holidays went. That’s just common courtesy and I do it offline too.

So does all of this work? I’d say it does. Sure, I still apply for suitable gigs when they come up, but at least half of the work I’m doing now is as a result of referrals. I’ve even got a few clients who have become such raving fans of my work that they approach me first for anything they want related to writing. That can’t be bad, can it?

How do you encourage client referrals?

Want more small business advice? Check out more posts on the Ins, Outs, Ups & Downs of Referrals from the creative and talented Word Carnival bloggers.

Image: Francisco Restivo

About Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall has been mentoring writers here at Get Paid To Write Online since 2005 to help them improve and build sustainable and successful writing careers. Check me out on Feel free to connect with me online on Google+.


  1. It doesn’t seem to matter what industry or niche you’re in — word of mouth and referrals make up the bulk of any successful business. And if we spend a whole bunch of money on marketing but fail to deliver great value, we’ve essentially just burned all that cash for nothing.

    Love this post, Sharon. You definitely show how important it is to follow through and go the extra mile with folks.

    • It’s funny, Tea, but just after drafting this I got another referral from someone I barely know. We both write for the same publication and have commented and shared the odd post, but that’s pretty much it. I love it when my work speaks for me! 🙂

  2. Sounds like work!! 🙂

    I love how you turned referrals on their head and made them more about US and how well we work and follow through. You know, it’s an aspect we don’t often think about but when we get referrals it’s so important to be on top of them – in a good way – following up, treating people well, staying in touch, keeping those relationships going. Your examples are perfect. A great reminder that we’ve got reputations that precede us so it would be wise to make them count!

    • It never hurts to keep in touch and occasionally it can lead to more work. Of course, sometimes you might think you have fallen off the radar, but then you notice that the same person who didn’t reply to your email has followed you on Twitter. Seeing it all as part of your contact system is helpful in assessing the state of your relationships with clients.

  3. Love your [referral] success stories, Sharon — totally awesome!
    We’ve all heard the phrase, “The fortune is in the follow up”, and you’re a prime example of that truth. “Communication regularly” counts. 🙂

  4. I love the contacting a couple of times a year..You do have a system in place that is working. This summer has taught me about one client that has no time to talk, does not really read the email, then get’s frustrated. So now I have to just add myself to his calendar and call, then email to make sure there is a record and following up has been the true key. Your post is helping me realize I could utilize a couple of other methods such as Linked in…I keep getting more endorsements there than before so I must have done something before that is now showing some results and I suppose I need to get in there, read and do it again! It is truly about the systems and following up…THANKS for the encouragement!

    • Anytime, Michelle. I have to confess that I prefer recommendations to endorsements on LinkedIn because it gives people the opportunity to say what they like about working together. However, numbers also tell a powerful story, so the endorsements make nice eye candy for a LI profile. 🙂 Your client sounds challenging; hope you find a better way to work with him.

  5. Big fan of Rapportive. The way you outline how you use it here is pretty awesome. I have it installed but haven’t really done anything significant with it to date…oops :).

    Anyway…the follow ups are what I think is key to the whole referral thing. It makes you stand out. It makes you memorable. And it that makes you more referable.

    • Yes, it’s a pretty awesome tool, Eugene. But even if you don’t have it installed, I find the Gmail feature that highlights previous emails from your contacts useful too (I’ve had to use that a couple of times when my computer is down). I keep meaning to see what happens when I enhance the Gmail contacts with my own notes and links, but with thousands of contacts it’s a task I may never get to when Rapportive does it effortlessly.

  6. Love the stories, Sharon. I never heard of Rapportive (what else is new?) 😉 so I am definitely going to check that out.

    I do many of the same things you do, such as sharing things I think would be of interest and writing LinkedIn recommendations. I also send just because thank-you gifts, like a fruit basket. I’ve also sent baby gifts for clients who have a new baby.

    I think you hit the nail on the head about not doing these things because you expect something in return. If you’re not genuine, clients feel it.

    This is why you are so successful, Sharon. 🙂

    • You’re a LinkedIn star, Cathy, and doing that extra thing to give a personal touch helps you stand out. For example, I love how you always thank contributors to your 3-Day walk and send occasional updates. Those things reinforce the connection. 🙂

  7. Sharon I love that you start out with focusing on first delivering quality to your clients. They are the customer, not an extension of my marketing department. Sometimes that concept gets lost in the discussions around referrals. Even though I haven’t had a system up to now (blush), I’ve still received some referrals for the very reason you state.

    As part of my public accountability I’ve given myself 30 days to come up with a plan and begin executing. Your ideas rock and I’m adding them in. Thanks!

    • Well, I would have put money on you having a system in place already, Nicole, but with your financial wizardry, I’m sure you’ll soon turn that system into a source of great relationships and more cash. 🙂

  8. Excellent post. I have gotten some of my best clients from referrals. It is always a nice surprise to hear from someone that they found me by a recommendation!


  9. Yeah, the follow-up is so important, especially on the clients who were skittish at first. The more you can re-market them, the better. Something as simple as “here are tips to keep your content fresh, oh by the way – did you know you can hire us to do that?” can lead to an insane amount of referrals.

    The thing great writers do so well is adaptive voice; which is the same thing that we like in actors who make us forget they’re acting. It’s really hard to tell people about that, though – it’s not like it’s an attribute like how many words per minute you can type. It’s intangible.

    In any case, I think this is a great rundown of what’s needed to snag referrals. Great post!

    • And actually, telling people about how they can save money can also help land you work, Nick. I’ve found that being mindful that clients have a budget really helps to solidify a relationship.

  10. Good lines of communication are key. Something as simple as a little unsolicited follow up goes a long way. People really appreciate a simple thoughtful gesture and it keeps you fresh in their minds.

  11. You say you’re not the high queen of client relations, but you say “The referrals I get today are a direct reflection of the hard work I have put into providing an excellent service for my clients.” Sharon, that more than qualifies you for the throne. 🙂

    Like you, my work has served as a referral for my services. However, too many clients are surprised when they learn I do more than articles. That’s where I’ve missed opportunities in the past. No more — I tell them all now, even in passing, that I work with corporates as well as publications. No way I’m leaving that money on the table!

    • You know, Lori, I never thought of it like that. And you make a great point about telling existing and prospective clients about the full range of your services – it’s a great way to pick up extra work! 🙂

  12. Great post, Sharon. Thanks for reminding me about Rapportive – gonna go install it right now!

  13. Sharon, these tools work equally well in client development for law firms. Your tips are right on the money and they can really serve the service businesses well if followed. Thanks for the insights and tips. Most appreciated.