How to Do It the Right Way

Studies show that 85% of small business owners depend on word-of-mouth referrals to get more local clients. While there’s no denying how powerful referrals are for growing your income, many of us don’t go looking for them.

Instead, we wait and think: “Build it and they will come.” Develop a proactive approach, especially in these uncertain economic times.

Take charge of your business by actually asking for them. The key is knowing when and how to ask.

Asking for Referrals: It’s About Timing

Put yourself in your client’s shoes: Would you be willing to refer a service provider who asked for a referral only a few weeks after they started working with you?

Chances are you wouldn’t. In fact, not only would you probably think it was strange at such an early stage in the business relationship, but you may also feel they are “money hungry” or even wonder: “Are they already moving on?” You will first need to develop the basic 3, know-like-trust.

Your clients are no different, and asking for a referral too early in a relationship sends the wrong message. If anything, it only increases the chances of souring that relationship.

“A referral is the most expensive form of marketing.”

At the beginning of any business relationship, you should focus on getting feedback to see if your clients are happy and even attempt to increase your workload. But as the relationship evolves, they’ll begin to trust you and learn what you’re capable of. It’s at this point you can comfortably ask for a referral.

Here are some common cues which suggest it’s time to ask:

  1. You’ve hit a significant milestone in the relationship, e.g., you’ve worked with the same client for six months or just finished a major project that’s taken months to complete
  2. Your client is often praising your work
  3. They’ve made it clear they’re delighted with your output, but have put a clear cap on how much work they can give you

When the Time Is Right!

Follow these guidelines to ask your clients for referrals:


Spend a little more time on a nice and personally crafted email.  Be sure they connect with clients and show just how grateful you are for all the work.

Here are some tips on how to send a personalized email:

  • Address the client by name—this may seem obvious, but many people forget this simple detail
  • Don’t immediately ask for a referral at the start of your email, instead begin on a lighter note by thanking them for all the work or even mentioning how much you enjoy working with them
  • Mention projects you’ve just completed, and highlight how you enjoyed tackling them
  • Flatter them a little: Say you’d like to find more clients just like them

2. Be Specific in YOUR REQUEST

Don’t let the client try and figure out what you are asking. As a small business owner, you may have many service offers. If you reach out to a client and ask them for a referral without specifying the service you want them to refer you for, you’re only creating more work for them, instead make it simple and easy for them to refer you. The added benefit is that you improve the chances of getting a quality referral.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re a photographer and a client recently hired you to take their corporate headshots for LinkedIn. When asking for a referral, don’t ask: “Do you know of anyone who needs a photographer?” Instead ask: “If you know any other business owners who need an update to their website or LinkedIn executive headshots, I’d love a referral!”

And, if you want to get even more specific, specify the area: “Do you know anyone who needs executive headshots in the Ottawa area?” The same applies if you’re a home inspector, painter, landscaper, law firm or building contractor.

The more specific your request, the greater the chances your client will recall someone who may need your services. Remember, referrals often take time, be patient.  It won’t hurt to drop some friendly reminders from time to time.


Finally, everyone loves a gift, and when we receive something, we’re far more inclined to return the favor. Your clients are no different. These gifts don’t have to be expensive—they can be something as simple as a handwritten thank you card or a discount on their next invoice. They don’t even have to be tangible—they could, for example, be a simple recommendation.

Bonus: Example Referral Email

Now that you understand asking for a referral should be special, with a customized email and the offer of something in return, let’s look at a quick example email. This email merely serves as inspiration—you should still create your own unique email for each client.

The Bottom Line When Asking for Referrals

Referrals remain the lifeblood of many small businesses. Many people make the mistake of passively waiting for these referrals instead of actively asking for them. Instead:

  • Get your timing right by asking for a referral after you’ve built a relationship
  • Approach it the right way by making your requests unique, customizing your emails and offering an incentive

Remember: When your client does give you a referral, thank them—common courtesy goes a long way to nurturing your existing relationships. And play the long-game. These things often don’t manifest instantly, but when the right opportunity or conversation arises. The goal is to be top-of-mind at the right time!

This doesn’t mean you should be banging on your client’s door every week, but it does mean you should develop the mindset of frequently asking—two to three times a year with a single client is usually enough.

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