Asking for Referrals for Fraidy-Cat Freelance Writers

Carol Tice

Scared to ask for referrals? One Writer’s Essential Tips. Makealivingwriting.comFor some freelance writers, it seems like asking for referrals and selling comes easy. They have a huge network of people they’ve cultivated relationships with. Their network hooks them up with new clients. And it’s easy for the same freelance writers to talk about their business in any situation, and get referrals.

That’s what successful freelance writers do. And I wasn’t sure I was cut out to be one of them if asking for referrals was part of the gig.

If you’re afraid to ask for referrals, you’ve probably heard that fraidy-cat freelance writer voice inside your head. You know, the one trying to convince you that:

  • People will think you’re desperate
  • You’re running some kind of scam
  • You can’t possibly provide a service valuable enough to help in any meaningful way

That cat needs to go. It took me a long time to figure this out. But when I finally did, I got a response in 10 minutes, a potential project, and scored another referral for more work. Here’s how I did it:

Is fear of asking for referrals holding you back?

The roots of my aversion to sales and asking for referrals go back to a time when I was old enough to love camping, but not old enough to work or drive. To support my camping habit, I had to walk from house to house with a tattered cookie-order sheet, knocking on door after door. The goal: get people to sign up for boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I hated every minute of it. But for our group to go on two camping trips a year, we each had to make our cookie quota, so I did it.

Marching orders from the Den Mother
Decades later, I joined Den 2x. I wanted to make more money from freelancing to support my modern-version of camping: international travel. My new Den Mother Carol Tice challenged me to map out a plan to grow my freelance business, and I did almost everything she told me to. Like put together my website, update my LinkedIn profile, set up Twitter, and create a marketing plan. I even suggested projects to current clients and asked for testimonials.

I was on board with everything, except one thing…asking for referrals. I was afraid. I didn’t think it would work. I wasn’t sure what to say. In my head, asking referrals felt too much like begging for crumbs and cookie orders.

When a client purrs, ask for a referral

After months of freaking out about asking for referrals and avoiding it, something happened. Two people at the same company sent me emails with positive feedback about a piece I wrote. A loud voice inside my head said, “You really should ask for a referral.”

So I did what any fraidy-cat-freelance writer would do about asking for referrals. I agonized over a big, long, rambling, ridiculous request, feeling like a little kid in a green uniform going door to door.

Essentials of asking for referrals

Luckily my inner editor took over. And I cut the message down to the essentials like this:

Ways to reach out
Start your email with a brief message about why you’re reaching out. It doesn’t have to be long. Here are some ways to get that ask-for-a-referral email started:

  • Say thanks. In this case, I was responding to a prospect who emailed to compliment me on a piece I wrote. So it was easy to respond, and say “thanks.”
    Example: Hi John, Thanks for the email about my recent blog post. It was an interesting one to research and write for my manufacturing client.
  • Catch up. You can also ask for referrals by reaching out to people in your network. For example, congratulate an editor for making a move to a new publication. Check in with a former co-worker climbing the corporate ladder. Or email a former colleague to catch up.
    Example: Hi Brenda, How’s it going? I noticed you just made the move to senior editor at the magazine. Congrats.
  • Share information. Come across an article, report, or news story that might be helpful to someone in your network? Share it. Send an email and tell your contact you thought they might find the information helpful.
    Example: Hi Lisa, How are you? I just came across this article on new strategies in content marketing. Thought you might find this helpful to get some ideas for your next campaign.

Ask a question
Think about what it’s like when you haven’t seen an old friend for a long time. You have a million questions, right? How are the kids? How’s work? What about that trip you took to Israel? Asking a question is a great way to reconnect with your contacts and let them know you’re thinking of them.

The more specific, the better.  People are genuinely blown away when you remember little details about their life/career. It’s why some sales people practically keep a little black book on everybody they’ve ever met.

  • Example:How’s it going since you made the move from newspapers to PR in Chicago?
  • Example: I’d love to know the back story to the Super Bowl commercial you helped produce. Can we catch up?

Provide a brief update on your freelance writing business
If you’re reaching out to a relatively new contact, give them a brief reminder about how you met. For other people in your network, you might just give them a brief update about your business, or the elevator-speech version of what you do as a freelance writer.

  • Example:I just landed a new blogging client writing about manufacturing and technology.
  • Example: I’ve been writing about grant funding for non-profits for about a year.

Ask for a referral
This is where a lot of writers start acting like they’re high on catnip. You don’t need to ask your contact, “Do you have any work?” It just comes across as looking a little desperate, even if you’re not. So you can go ahead and shut down those looping thoughts about your career imploding by asking for a referral. Just ask your contact a simple question:

Do you know anyone who needs a freelance writer?”

Ask if they have any colleagues who could use a healthcare writer, B2B marketing writer, or whatever kind of writer you are. It’s really that simple. 

Does asking for referrals really work?

I reached the tipping point where I had to find out. I finished the email to my contact and clicked send. Instantly, I felt a twist in my gut, and even vented to my Den 2x mastermind group about how much I hated asking for referrals. asking for referrals

While I was freaking out about finally asking for a referral, I went to make myself a cup of stress-buster tea. And before I even got back to my computer, I had a reply in my inbox. The marketing director had someone she wanted to refer me to, and she had a bigger project coming up she thought I’d be great for. Translation: asking for referrals works.

Strategies to improve results when you ask for referrals
I’d built asking for referrals into a big, huge deal, all for nothing. Was it really so hard? No. I sheepishly confessed to the Den 2x mastermind group that my referral request went better than expected. It’s really not a big deal to ask for referrals, if you understand the essentials and follow a few basic rules like:

  • Take advantage of good timing. Having several people praising me meant I was top of mind, making a positive result more likely.
  • Include a short list of other services. Doing this effectively helped me upsell my current client. Here’s what I wrote: Besides blogging, I also write case studies, newsletter articles, white papers, brochure copy, website pages, and press releases.
  • Keep the message short and the tone confident. I’m sure they had no idea I was nervous.

Ask for referrals to get more clients

Asking for referrals is now easy for me. I understand that it’s a win-win for everyone. I get more work from new clients that are similar to a client that’s already a good fit for me. And my client gets to be the hero who refers an excellent writer to a colleague. Along with traditional marketing efforts to find more clients, I regularly look for opportunities to ask for referrals, because I know it works. As a bonus, I can even buy Girl Scout cookies from the kids who go door to door while I plan my next trip, paid for by my newest clients.

Karen Smock is a freelance B2B marketing writer for manufacturing and technology clients. She also likes Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, world travel, and spending time with her family.

Has asking for referrals worked for you? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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  1. Richard Rowlands

    Thanks for this, Karen. This is a strategy I’ll definitely use going into 2017.

  2. Holly Bowne

    Great post, Karen – and a great idea! I never think about asking for referrals! I really appreciate your actionable tips on how to approach the request. Definitely adding this into my marketing repertoire. Thanks!

    • Karen Smock

      Hi Holly,
      You’re welcome. I feel kind of silly for resisting asking for referrals for so long. It does work!

  3. Karen Smock

    Hi Richard,
    Glad to have helped. Asking for referrals is easier than we think! Your 2017 strategy is sure to benefit from including referrals in your plan.

  4. Melanie

    Hi Karen,

    Your post helps tremendously. I am currently revising my marketing plan and although I have intended to ask for referrals, your step by step advice makes it easy to grasp and less scary.

    Thank you!

    • Karen Smock

      Hi Melanie,
      The scariest part is hitting send on the first one. I’m glad my experience helped!

  5. Evan Jensen

    Great advice. I know I need to do more of this. It really is pretty easy. Just sent this email asking for a referral about a week ago, and got a response:

    Hi Brian,
    I met you at the Oregon Healthiest Employers event a couple months ago. Noticed you made the move to Grokker not long after that. Congrats.

    Read your LinkedIn profile, and you know, yoga and running actually go pretty well together. 🙂 Keep on running.

    Wondered if you might know anyone who needs a freelance writer for health/wellness content?

    Evan Jensen

    Hi Evan,
    Thanks for the note. Yes, I remember you. Right now I’m good with freelance writers. I have two that I’ve worked with for several years. As things grow I’ll keep you in mind

    Yes, I love yoga! It’s changed my life.

    all the very best! Brian

    • Carol Tice

      And boom — warm connection established!

    • Karen Smock

      Hi Evan,
      Great example! It really doesn’t have to be a long, complicated thing. I suspect that a lot of us over-think it.

  6. Karen J

    Hi Karen (aand Carol!)
    I just opened this post, after ‘resisting’ even reading your articlees for several months, because my life is s-o-o-o far from ‘writing’ currently!
    However, I’m using your terrific encouragement to help me send out ‘real job’ employment inquiries!
    Thank you so much. You keep witing here, and I’ll definitely keep reading!
    Happy Winter Holidays of Your Choice! 🙂

    • Karen J

      Please excuse the typos. It’s very close to zero F here in Michigan, and my fingers (and my brain) aren’t working so well…

      • Karen Smock

        Hi Karen,
        It’s freezing here, too – perfect weather to stay in, pour a cup of tea, and send out LOIs and referral requests!

      • Carol Tice

        Don’t see any typos…but remember, you’re covered under my Universal Typo Comment Insurance policy. 😉

  7. Felix Abur

    I’m almost always ghostwriting for American writers. And my inner voice always convinces me they wouldn’t give a referral since it would be tantamount to them admitting they outsource their work to some guy in Africa. I think it’s time I told that inner voice to shut the freak up!

    • Karen Smock

      Hi Felix,
      Yes, that voice needs to keep out of it. Your clients can help their colleagues who need a ghostwriter by recommending YOU!

  8. Katherine Swarts

    If you’ve ever shared your home with four-legged cats, you know that once they’re comfortable with you, they definitely are NOT shy about letting you know what they want! Get comfortable with the idea of referrals, and asking will come naturally.

    • Karen J

      That’s a terrific ”nother view point’ to look at referrals from, Katherine! Thanks 🙂

  9. Serena Sonoma

    Thanks for the post Carol!

  10. Karen Taylor

    I must know the wrong people. I’ve only ever received one enquiry from a referral request I sent on LinkedIn in. He asked if I had published in journals before. I had not and said so, but I tried convincing him that I could polish up and refine the work if he wrote the entry. I didn’t hear back. What did I do wrong?

    • Karen Smock

      Hi Karen,
      You probably didn’t do anything wrong. Projects get cancelled all the time for a variety of reasons. Or, his boss insisted on finding someone who had already been published. Their loss! Control what you can: sending more referral requests to your existing network of people who know you and like your work. New clients who need a writer exactly like you are out there, you just need to connect with them.

  11. Marian

    Excellent Karen, and thank-you for real dialogue examples as well as theory.
    It is very helpful to know that it is ok to be direct and to the point:)!
    I get nervous knowing how and what to ask, especially when somebody asks me for a freebie (it will give me ‘exposure’)
    And now I’m 62 and probably will never learn lol.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

    • Carol Tice

      I think all you’d have to do to learn and move your career forward is eliminate the negative self-talk you’ve got going on, Marian. 😉

      Pro writers don’t write for exposure except under some highly useful circumstances, so just feel free to say no! That’s what most of us do. I’ve been hired for pay by people I refused to do free samples for, more than once, at this point.

      • Marian

        Thanks, Carol :))
        That’s great advice!
        A free request happens so fast I find that I’m too stunned to react and end up mumbling “yes” and then kicking myself.
        But I always make the work order deadline. Lol

        • Carol Tice

          Well…make a note to yourself to stop mumbling. And to look at what instinct would make you reflexively say ‘yes’ to being ripped off? Let’s work on reprogramming that…

    • Karen Smock

      Hi Marian,
      Do you walk in to stores and ask them to give you freebies? It’s nice to get a free gift with purchase, but successful businesses need to make a profit, and that means paying clients. As Carol said, the only exception would be some serious exposure, and very few places can deliver on that promise.
      Don’t use age as an excuse – use it as an advantage. The Baby Boomer market is huge, so if you “get” them, you’ve got an advantage over other writers who don’t. Make 2017 your year!

  12. Marian

    Yes Karen, I see your point. So weary of not getting paid and of course… I AM the Baby Boomer Market. Have to see where my talents fit in and thanks!

  13. Jennifer

    This is great! I need to try this out in the New Year.

    I actually had my first referral call the other day. I didn’t ask for a referral from this client and I haven’t written for him in 8 months. I sent a check in email in September but he didn’t have any work on the horizon but said he did want to use my services in the future when he wrapped up other projects. He then emailed me a glowing testimonial to put on my writer website. I mailed him a personal thank you note at the end of November, (I mailed an end of year thank you note to all 2016 clients – personalized to each one).

    Anyway, didn’t hear anything from it but was very surprised to get a call yesterday from someone who said this client gave him my number 🙂

    I’m always afraid to ask but reading your blog it really seems silly. The absolute worst thing they could do is say no or not respond. No harm done. I will be brave in 2017 and ask 🙂

    Thank you for the excellent post!

    • Carol Tice

      Nice job keeping your name in front of that prospect, Jennifer — see how that paid off!

  14. Jackie

    I usually sell my services on the various freelancing platforms so it has never occurred to me to ask for a referral. For some reason I assumed that that most businesses would not know of anyone else that would need my services. Guess I was wrong.

    • Carol Tice

      Well…this is one of the many reasons to get OFF the ‘various freelancing platforms’ and find and form relationships with clients you deal with directly, Jackie. Then you get to know the owners, and they know your name. And definitely, business owners tend to network together, know each other, and share their gripes — like how hard it is to find a good writer.

      Afraid I don’t allow links to profiles or subpages on any of those mass platforms as comment links here on the blog, so I’ve removed yours, sorry! Just don’t have time to vet those.

  15. Marian

    Hello and Happy New Year, Jackie.
    Your post was among the many that are inspiring:).
    I have not yet had success as a freelance writer, as I have just found out that I enjoy it but have not found a/my niche.
    Much success to you in 2017!

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