10 min read

I talk to a lot of freelancers and client-based business owners, and just about all of them tell me they could use more clients. When I ask them how they typically get clients, just about all of them will tell me it’s “mostly word-of-mouth.”

And yet, when I ask about how they plan to get more clients, they will almost always bring up ideas like starting an email list, putting more effort into social media, spinning up a podcast, or trying their hand at video.

But if the majority of your clients are coming from referrals…shouldn’t you focus on getting more referrals?

You may think that you can’t control when referrals come…and that’s partially true.

But think of referrals as the outcome – you can influence that outcome by focusing on the inputs.

Where referrals come from

Let’s talk about word-of-mouth.

When you’re freelancing, your business will run on word-of-mouth. It’s pretty obvious that the words come out of the mouths of people who already know you. I call these people your advocates.

You already have advocates – friends, family, coworkers, collaborators…they are just people who know you and willingly say nice things about you.

These advocates can be a total game changer for your work, especially when you’re getting started. And they are completely undervalued and underutilized.

In a lot of ways, your advocates act as a volunteer sales force for you.

Who wouldn’t want people out there selling for them (for free)?

Think about your last word-of-mouth referral – it was exactly that. One of your advocates was speaking highly of you, recommended that client talk to you, and a project happened.

It probably happened more quickly than your own sales efforts too. When someone is referred, they are placing the trust they have in your advocate into you! And it’s a much shorter cycle to working with that client.

You didn’t have to find that prospect, because your advocate did it for you. You didn’t have to qualify that you could help them with their problem, because your advocate did it for you. You didn’t have to prove yourself as much, because your advocate did a lot of it for you.

This is the input you can focus on. You can focus on creating more advocates for your business.

Why would someone willingly advocate for you?

I get this question a lot – and I want to answer it with my own question: Have you ever recommended someone to someone else?

I’d bet that you have. It’s just common human behavior – we have an innate desire to problem-solve.

Every day, we are interacting with other people. And because we are so absorbed in our own problems, we talk about those problems to other people. So when I tell someone that, “I’m struggling with (fill in the blank)” the person I’m sharing that with will think, “How can I help solve that problem?”

Usually that solution comes in the form of an introduction to someone else in their network. And just like that, a word-of-mouth referral is born. Someone wanted to solve a problem, and you were that solution.

So when an advocate refers someone to me, they probably weren’t actually thinking, “How can I help Jay today?” They were thinking, “How can I help this person right in front of me right now?”

Having advocates isn’t enough

But your challenge is that those interactions that generate word-of-mouth referrals happen quickly. When someone starts thinking, “Who do I know that can solve this problem…” they reach into their brain’s recall bank.

Our memories, like our attention span, are getting worse. When we reach into our recall bank, we don’t dig too deeply – we usually opt for the first person that comes to mind that checks the boxes.

So if you are going to get the referral, you need to be first to mind.

It’s won’t help you to have a ton of advocates if you’re never first to mind for them.

Being first to mind

This is where the real hard work comes in. If someone asks me for a referral to a videographer, I’m going to immediately recall 5-10 videographers that I know and trust. But I’ll probably only refer to one of them.

How do I make the decision?

I want to make the best recommendation for the person standing in front of me (because that reflects on me – the referrer). Sometimes that person will give me more context (e.g. “They should have captured keynote presentations before.”) or I will make assumptions (e.g. “This is a speaker, who do I know who has captured speakers before?”).

I’m more likely to recall a specialist than a generalist. In this hypothetical situation, I’d be thinking of a videographer who specializes in or has done a lot of work capturing speaking events.

To be blunt, the referrer will be putting you in a box. I know, we all hate to be put into boxes – but when it comes to recall and getting referrals, you’re going to be put in a box whether you like it or not.

So the best thing you can do is embrace that reality and build your own box for people to put you into.

If you never handed me the box to put you in, and I can’t figure it out myself, I’m probably not going to be referring someone to you very often. It’s a bummer, but it’s true.

Creating your own box

We remember specific terms very well. If there WAS a videographer who specialized in capturing keynotes, you better believe I’ll remember her name and be referring her to speakers.

A good friend of mine specializes in writing email copy for SaaS companies. Now that’s specific – and she gets a ton of targeted clients because of it!

I know you’re going to resist specializing. We all do.

Just know that your specialization is not a prison cell or a prison sentence – it doesn’t preclude you from taking on other projects, and you can change it anytime you want.

But by specializing and creating a box for people to put you in, you give your advocates the most important tool for referring potential clients to you.

Keep it simple (because remember, we have short memories). You can start with the framework, “I help [x] do [y].” This is your Elevator Speech.

I help [creatives] [become business owners].

You may help [speakers] [capture their events].

Or maybe you help [small businesses] [create engaging social content].

In all of those examples, you have specific terms for the type of client you’re looking for and the type of work you can do for them.

So when your advocates are out in the world, they can connect the type of person in front of them or the type of help they need to you.

Start with your existing advocates

The obvious takeaway from this article is that you should focus on creating more advocates for yourself and your business.

But before I talk about creating advocates, I want to talk about the advocates you already have. Remember: you already have advocates in your friends, family, coworkers, colleagues, and so on.

Chances are those advocates are not as well-equipped to refer people to you as you’d like. If you haven’t handed them your tidy box of how to think about you, you are not going to be first-to-mind in the situations you could be.

So spend some time meeting and catching up with people in your network who you’re already close with. By being the person who goes first and reaches out to reconnect, you’ll already make a positive impression.

Be genuinely interested in your advocates – talk about their work, what they’re excited about, and how you can help THEM.

If and when they ask what you’re up to or how they can help, this is your opportunity to share your new Elevator Speech.

“Thanks for asking! I’m spending a lot of time lately helping [x] do [y]. Does anyone come to mind that I should chat with?”

They are going to go into problem-solving mode, consider those two specific variables you laid out, and may be able to introduce you directly to some great potential clients.

They may also say, “I’m not sure,” and that’s OK too.

The goal isn’t to create a client on the spot (although that’d be nice). The goal is to start socializing the way you want your advocates to think about you when they are out in the world going about their daily lives.

But I cannot stress enough how important it is to be genuine in these conversations and try to help that other person too. It’s not about quid pro quo – it’s about being a good friend and building a real relationship with someone.

If you try to shortcut this step, people will sense that and will no longer be genuine advocates. No one likes to feel used – so don’t use anyone. And the only way to avoid being transactional or using people is to build real relationships with them.

Creating new advocates

Once you feel like you’ve made the rounds and reconnected with your existing advocates, you can turn your attention to creating new advocates.

This sounds like it’s going to be a lot of work, but the truth is you’re probably already doing the hardest part.

I meet with 5-10 new people a week, and have been for a few years now. You may be doing something similar, give or take a few.

You meet and talk to more new people than you think. But as service-providers, we jump to quickly to the question of, “Could this person become a client?”

That question ends a lot of relationships prematurely. Not to mention it’s a BIG question to ask.

Instead of worrying about creating new clients for my business, I think about creating new advocates – and it’s a simple acronym: ABC.

ABC stands for Advocates Before Clients. Don’t start conversations (or relationships) trying to create a client. Instead, try to turn everyone you meet into an advocate for your business.

It doesn’t usually happen in one conversation, but each conversation should build towards a stronger relationship, which will in turn create new advocates for you and your work.

This way, all conversations can be welcomed and a worthwhile investment of your time. Relatively speaking, very few people become clients. You don’t work with nearly as many people as you meet.

But anyone can become an advocate. It may not be obvious that someone may be able to someday refer clients to your business, but you’d be surprised.

And those who do become clients typically start as advocates themselves. After all, they would need to advocate to themselves or their team that they should hire you.

So remember your ABCs: Advocate Before Client.

Tying it all together

If you’re running a client-based business, chances are that a large percentage of your clients came from word-of-mouth. So if you want more clients, why not start by increasing word-of-mouth?

Start with your Advocates – the people you’re already close to who know you and willingly talk about you to their own network. Give them the tools to be effective advocates by creating an easy way to think about your work – you help [x] do [y].

Be interested in your advocates, help them however you can, and be patient. As you build your network and create more advocates over time, clients will start finding YOU.

In the comments below, leave YOUR best description of who you help and how you help them. I recommend the framework: I help [x] do [y].

This article was inspired by a lesson from my course Selling for FreelancersClick here for a free lesson.

I recently poke in-depth about Advocates in an interview with Brian Clark on his show, 7-Figure Small. Listen below.

Listen to “Freelancers: Build a Network of Advocates that Builds Your Business” on Spreaker.