You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. You are the company you keep. What goes around comes around. All of the sayings are ones we’ve heard — and been reminded of — time and time again, but for good reason: They’re, well, true. Not only in life but in business — especially when you’re a moonlighter.

The world of referrals fosters elbow-rubbing, career advancement and plenty of mutually beneficial work. That being said, not everyone plays fair in the recommendation game, making it paramount to develop a professional etiquette toward whom you take advice from and whose praises you sing. After all, it can make or break your connection, future projects and, of course, your reputation.

“Referrals are an important part of doing business. The referrals I have received have increased my rapport with past clients, and continue to foster new strategic partnerships and relationships. But, I am careful about who I connect and refer to for business,” explains branding expert Wendi Weiner. “Reputation management is at the core of building a referral system. If you connect a referral that turns sour, it can impact your ability to want to do business with that freelancer or company again.”

Here’s how to strategically use referrals as a pillar of your freelancing business:

etiquette guide freelance how to gain clients and income

What to consider before making a referral — and how to say ‘no.’

While the ledge might only be digital, recommending the expertise, talent or skills of another person is putting your name out on the line. That’s why before you make an intro, career experts stress the importance of ensuring you’re sure of their ability to deliver quality results and work. As freelance writer and fashion/beauty copywriter Jamie Allison Sanders explains, if you can’t vouch for them, you should feel empowered to decline.

Depending on which way you’re being asked to create a connection — either client-to-freelancer or freelancer-to-client — take a step back and put yourself in the situation.

If you were a publication or a website who had continuously hired a writer for assignments, and he or she recommended another wordsmith who fell short, how would you react? You might reconsider their level of expertise or ability to judge character or talent. Or, you might even be a bit peeved they wasted your time on onboarding someone they will no longer assign to. On the other hand, if you’re a journalist who passes along a glowing recommendation to a graphic designer, transcriptionist or other vendor to a fellow content pro — and that client isn’t quite up to par, you probably wouldn’t take their opinion seriously again.

As Weiner explains, “Clients expect me to make referrals to them from people who also produce high-caliber work and who are highly professional in nature. I believe when you are making a referral to a trusted source like a client, you are putting your own reputation on the line. I also have expectations of my own client to follow up with a company or freelancer and be professional and collegial.”

That’s why feeling empowered to decline intros is essential for career growth. “I have been asked to refer people on multiple occasions that I don’t pass along because either I don’t think they’re a good fit or I don’t know them well enough to stand by my referral,” Sanders shares. “I think that your referrals reflect on you, so I don’t want anyone I refer to do an inadequate job and reflect poorly on me with that company.”

But how can you tell if someone is worthy of your seal of approval?

First and foremost, freelance writer and editor Rachel Sokol says knowing the person and having specific experience is a no-brainer check box to tick off. “I made mistakes by referring people I didn’t know that well because I didn’t want to seem mean, or I referred them because I felt badly for them. I am willing to refer someone if someone else I know well, such as my husband or best friend, has worked with them because I trust their judgement,” she explains.

On the positive side, if there is someone who you’re happy — and confident — to pass along a glowing review for, putting two folks together you vouch for can be an exciting venture. After all, creating beneficial connections is not only good news for your client or another freelancer’s opportunities, but it is killer career karma, too. How you approach the topic makes a difference though — here’s how to go about it professionally and effectively.


What to consider when making a freelance referral or recommendation

What to consider when making the recommendation

When I rebranded my personal website, I worked with a trusted web developer and friend who catered to female entrepreneurs and executives. Once the finished product was live and thriving, I couldn’t wait to share her info far-and-wide, since the experience was so seamless, easy and inspiring. While sure I could recommend both her ability to code and her cooking skills, experts agree keeping it buttoned-up, yet personal, makes for a higher possibility your recommendation will be taken seriously.

That’s why I follow the advice of experts and provide as much information upfront to any company — whether a publication I write for or a content client whose blog I manage — so there are no surprises. An example might be:

Please meet [client], I’ve worked with them across various projects and stories, and couldn’t speak higher of their work. You can see projects we have worked together on here, and I’m happy to provide more information on their services. Their rates start at [price] and usually deliver within [time frame]. Let me know if you’d like an introduction!

Weiner says this is a smart way to approach referring a client to a company, prioritizing the nitty-gritty details over anything else. “This means making a formal introduction to a direct person, whether it is a publication, service provider, or even a recruiter. I believe in making an introduction and then letting the parties take it from there. The onus is on them to leverage the connection,” she explains.

Have a client who is historically particular about their hires?

This can be troublesome to make a cold intro, since they might be caught off-guard without being able to research a freelancer or service before they arrive in their inbox. It could reflect poorly on you to put your contact in this situation, so Sanders says you can further protect your reputation by touching base with them pre-intro.

In addition to giving your honest perception, you can also help check off some preferences:

  • Phone or email?
  • Are they hiring?
  • Do they want to be connected?
  • Is now a good time, or later?

This protects your relationship and makes it more likely your referral will be considered at the right moment. “I typically will reach out to the client first and ask whether they are interested, and then ask for their preferred method of contact. Then I will put the two people in touch as requested,” she notes.

Traditionally speaking, especially in the new age of connectivism and technology, email is a professional-enough route, according to Weiner. But you might be strategic to follow up on the referral’s experience within a few weeks, too. “I am a big proponent of email because it leaves a paper trail. I always start off with an email and then do a phone call follow-up. People can always reference the email later on. I also believe that people tend to prefer communicating over email because it documents the conversation and keeps it streamlined and focused,” she explains.


Though certain types of industries lend themselves to making a profit off referrals, is that the case in the freelance realm?

Should you expect compensation? It depends on who you ask.

Generally speaking, financial gain isn’t a direct result for most referrals, according to the majority of freelancers. More so, paying it forward eventually makes it way back to you in the form of work or future references in your direction.

As Sokol says, “Journalism is a really tough business, and I’ve learned it’s so much better to catch flies with honey. Editors gave me chances when I was just starting out and I’d like to do the same for others — and have.”

Weiner says though traditional reporting gigs might not result in extra dollars, other types of content work may yield a percentage. Resume writing, for example, 10 to 15 percent of the project fee would be expected. Though not a standard, Weiner adds sometimes referrals can result in unexpected “thank you” tokens if a fruitful relationship is formed — like a $10 Starbucks gift card or a spa certificate. In this instance, it is more about the gesture than the amount.

Navigating referrals can be tricky — but ultimately, the more connections you make, explore and support, the further net you cast.

Recommend smartly, follow-up kindly and always keep an eye, ear and page open for new opportunities. Even though you might not instantly reap the rewards instantly, the more you make a name for yourself as someone with a plethora of clients, the more often people will begin to rely on you for your connections. This could mean more work, the experience to request higher rates and of course, a name that is trusted within your industry.

Freelance writer Aly Walansky says the value of our network can be both bad and good, but if you invest in those people and services of which you can stand firmly beside, it can make a difference in every edge of your business. It might seem like work to maintain several relationships, but the payoff for your career is worth it.

Perhaps entrepreneur and publicist Cindy Mich said it best, “Networking and partnering of people is one of the biggest ways for multiple parties to find success. You all support each other, sometimes the majority make more revenue, and it’s another way to get public attention, whereby increasing one’s own clientele.”

Bottom line? Get your digital Rolodex up and running — and ready to prosper.

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