Direct isn’t dirty. And six other tips for requesting referrals

I’ve spoken before about the potential for referrals to be a golden ticket for agencies. That said, there are still feelings of awkwardness and appearing either desperate or pushy when it comes to asking for, or discussing, the potential for referrals. This article from The Future Factory was worth sharing because it makes some great (and direct) points on the best way to go about curating referrals.

1) Direct isn’t dirty

This is honestly the best advice out there. There’s nothing inherently rude about asking your clients for referrals, so just bite the bullet and get on with it. All you’re demonstrating is a passion for what you do and a pro-active approach to growing your agency.

If you’re still against being direct, there are other ways to get some client kudos. Ask your client if they’d be happy with you creating a case study with their info. Or perhaps they could write a testimonial to put on your website? Perhaps you could add a little referral request to the bottom of all invoices?

Every client is different so read the room and decide what’s most appropriate for the individual scenario.

2) Be selective and specific

You should only bother to ask for referrals from the kinds of clients you want more of. If you’ve stepped outside of your remit to complete a quick and dirty side project that doesn’t fit in with the majority of your agency work (we’re not judging you – everybody cheats on their core clients from time to time) there’s no point in trying to score more of the same work.

When you’ve chosen the right client to get a referral from, you’re more likely to instigate a valuable referral if you can be specific with what you’re after. Make sure you have an pitch ready for all referral requests.

“Our ideal clients are Marketing & Innovation Directors within the tech and audio sectors. Typically, they’re facing “X” challenges, which you’re already aware we are great at dealing with.”

This will prevent you from getting a heap of barely relevant referrals that you’ll either have to turn down or reluctantly work on. Neither are optimal outcomes, so save your stitches by clarifying up front what an ideal referral looks like.

3) Spell out exactly how it could work

Sometimes, clients who would be more than happy to give you a referral hold back because

  1. It hasn’t occurred to them, or
  2. They don’t know how best to go about it.

Up your chances of a steady flow of referrals by making it easy for clients. Give clear instructions on how they can help. There are a bunch of different ways referrals can work:

They could send an intro email on your behalf.

If you want your clients to initiate email contact with a prospect, take some of the legwork out by giving them a loose template email, or an example of what other references have sounded like: “We’ve recently worked with Imaginary Agency and think they could be really beneficial for your team. They’ve been a joy to collaborate with, and this is what they do…” etc.

  • They could invite a colleague to join near the end of one of your meetings.

There’s no better pitch than getting prospects to watch your process. If your client mentions a colleague you’d be interested in working with, ask your client to invite them to join towards the end of your meeting. One little taste of your agency and hopefully they’ll be hungry for more.

  • They could agree to have their contact details listed in your proposals as a referee.
  • Or they could simply agree for you to name-drop them when you reach out to a mutual connection.

Anything that makes a new business outreach less cold is a helping hand!

4) Show your appreciation

Don’t ask your clients for referrals and then disappear into the ether. Take the time to properly thank your referee. This will keep the door open for future word-of-mouth referrals.

Similarly, can you offer something to encourage more referrals? A gift card, a team lunch on you, or a charitable donation in a client’s name are all lovely gestures that might just convince a client to go the extra mile.

Could you start the good Karma by offering to give your client a glowing review on Linkedin?

5) Don’t leave it too long

If you and your client are feeling excited and enthusiastic to be working together, that might be the perfect time to ask them to spread the word. Don’t feel you need to wait until the end of a project to ask if a referral might be possible.

That said, there are plenty of opportunities after the fact that you can politely ask your ex-clients for referrals too. If you’ve got an upcoming event, whitepaper on the way out, or new products in your pipeline that you think might excite past clients, spread the word! Make your old clients feel valued by keeping them in the loop.

6) This time it’s personal

As with so many aspects of marketing, the more personal you make your message, the higher your chance of success. Don’t queue up an automated and generic referral email through your CRM. Take the time to drop your client a personalised email. Or even better, find a moment when you’re already on a call together or face to face, and drop your request into conversation. You’re more likely to get an instant and positive response if you’re speaking rather than emailing.

In addition, be sure to share your growth ambitions and WHY you’re asking for referrals. By opening up and inviting your clients closer into your world, you’ll make them feel special. Share the reason you’re trying to grow and the positive impact that will have on your team, the agency and of course their business. Will growth of a new division enable you to bring more talent into the agency? Invest in smarter tools and research? Establish a footprint in other markets that are also relevant to your client?

7) Clients are just part of the puzzle

Referrals don’t just come from clients. Ex-employees, freelancers you’ve worked with, and even interview candidates are all links in your networking web. Make all of the interactions with your agency as positive as possible so every business touchpoint has the potential to create an eager referee.

Equally, look at companies that offer complementary products and services, or those in your community. They might also be good sources of referrals.

Final thoughts

One last bit of advice: refrain from commenting on how crazy busy you are right now! If clients think your books are full, they’re less likely to bandy your name around town.

Make sure clients come away from every conversation feeling psyched for any ongoing projects, delighted by the work you’re doing, and eager to lend you a helping hand.

Get it right, and passionate referrals will lead you towards the clients you covet, without you ever having to dip into your marketing budget.

A great article with some really important takeaways. If you’ve been thinking about referrals for a while, make some notes on this and have a sit down with your team, it’s surely worth a shot?

I share more articles like this in my weekly newsletter, Rambling On. If you would like to sign up you can do so, here.


Every Wednesday I book out an hour to hold a FREE agency leaders surgery. If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues. You can help yourself to my calendar, here. Speaking to a diverse group of agency leaders helps me stay current and contextualise the issues I’m seeing with my clients. So please see this conversation as a genuine collaboration where we both hope to learn something new.


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If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.