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How to Grow Your Editing Business with Referrals

Magnifying glass over word career
Magnifying glass over word career

One goal of my editorial services business is to gain more clients who are similar to my favorite clients. A while back, at Communication Central’s annual conference, I attended “Rev Up Your Business with Referral Power” presented by Jake Poinier, aka Dr. Freelance. Poinier outlined how I can find those desired clients.

Why Referrals?

I don’t know about you, but I spend a good deal of time trying to win new clients. I work hard at creating winning proposals, but not all of them work out. That’s how it goes in business, and I’m fine with that.

But what if the prospects who came to me were already presold on my skills? What if they had self-selected themselves as clients who would be a good fit for my business?

That’s what marketing is all about: telling the world about your business in a way that helps the right clients contact you. Any successful business needs a good marketing plan (you do have one, right?), and Poinier believes that referrals can be a key part of that plan.

Why? According to Poinier:

  • Referrals help diversify your business. Clients come and go. By growing your client list with a variety of clients, you’ll suffer less when one walks away or when an industry struggles.
  • They bring prequalified leads. Your good clients won’t knowingly send bad prospects your way. Ideally, they’ll send prospects similar to themselves.
  • They require less effort. Referrals take less time and effort than a wide search for new clients. That leaves you more time for the paying work.

Referrals Work

People trust personal recommendations. We trust what someone who has purchased the product or service says more so than what the company that sells them says. Customers seem objective to us. What do they have to gain from raving about a product or service?

Prospects who come to you from other clients are not only more likely to be similar to your current client but they’re also more likely to accept your fees and to cooperate more easily with your processes, says Poinier. They’ve likely already checked you out online, too, so they have a fair idea of whether they might like to work with you.

Review Your Business

The first step Poinier recommends is looking at your current client list. How many of them came from referrals? It may be more than you realize. Determine the source, if you can. You may already have some good referral agents on your team!

Going forward, be sure to track the sources of all your clients. You can’t duplicate what works if you don’t know what works.

Look again at that client list. Which clients do you wish you could clone? Why do you wish to clone them? Because of the money? The work itself? The relationship? Figure out what about this client you want in other clients. For example:

  • I like the subject matter.
  • There is a steady flow of work for me to do.
  • The client is willing to pay my desired rate.
  • The client pays on time.

Do this for every favorite client. You might find similarities among them, or you might find they’re completely different. Either way, you’re building a picture of your ideal client or clients. This will help you find what you’re looking for.

Who Will Refer You?

Next, look at the client’s side of the equation, advises Poinier. Of those on your favorites list, who is likely to refer you? It will be a client who is not only pleased with your work but who also understands that your taking on new clients doesn’t mean they’re getting tossed aside.

Don’t limit yourself to just your main client contact, either. With one of my clients, I work with a couple of staffers and a few freelancers. All of them are potential people for me to approach for a referral.

Consider teaming up with freelancers who offer related services. Those freelancers I work with are writers and designers. I could ask about partnership opportunities and offer to refer them as well.

Be Ready for Prospects

A smart businessperson doesn’t hire based on referrals alone. They do their homework before contacting you, checking out your online presence, for example.

Make sure you reflect your desired brand image, both in person and in your marketing materials. What is your brand image? Are you the handholding type of editor who coaches your writers through the editing process? Perhaps you offer other publishing services, such as book design or project management, acting as a one-stop shop for your clients. Or maybe you specialize in editing esoteric topics.

Whatever your image, don’t just hope that your clients have picked up on who you are. Ensure that all your marketing materials reflect it. This includes any business writing you do and the business cards and brochures you give out. It also includes the image you project in person.

Before that prospect researches you online, Poinier advises reviewing the following for brand image and accuracy:

  • Your website
  • Your social media profiles
  • Your directory listings
  • Your business blog

How to Ask for a Referral

While you can ask clients out of the blue to refer you, you’ll have more success when you make use of a positive experience.

Anytime your client praises you is a great time to ask for referrals, says Poinier. This might be during the project or once the project is finished. For example:

Client: You did a great job editing my manuscript. It reads so much better now!

You: I’m glad I was able to help you! If you know of any other writers I could help, please pass my information along. I’d love to help someone else!

Believe it or not, after someone refers you is a great time to ask for more—while you’re saying thank you, of course. You might say something like:

Thank you for referring Jane Smith to me. I’m excited to help her the way I’ve helped you. And as a referral-based business, I really appreciate your support.

Recommendations Are Subtle Referrals

Poinier reminded us that recommendations are referrals too. It’s a way for similar clients to identify with your recommending client.

If you want to be more subtle (many editors are introverts, after all), try asking for recommendations that you can use in your marketing materials or on your LinkedIn profile.

Start by writing a good recommendation for the person you want to recommend you, advises Poinier. Be honest and sincere in your recommendation, and don’t sweat it if someone doesn’t recommend you back. The hope is that your good deed will be returned.

LinkedIn allows the person being recommended to review the recommendation before posting. This is a good strategy for all recommendations. You want them to reflect the business image you want to portray. Poinier suggests this testimonial structure:

  1. Identify the client’s problem or challenge.
  2. Tell what you did to solve the problem.
  3. Describe the results you delivered.
  4. Don’t include anything that undermines your business identity, such as wording that makes you sound cheap.

I’ve Got a Referral! Now What?

Poinier reminded us to find out what the prospective client likes about you and ensure that it’s an accurate perception. Can you do what they think you can? This is likely if your referrer has told the prospect about your work and if the perception you create for your business matches the client’s perception.

Be sure to thank your referrers. A handwritten note is nice because it stands out, says Poinier. It says you’ve made a little effort in our instant-gratification world to acknowledge what someone’s done for you. I’ve received a couple of handwritten notes from folks I’ve hired. I can tell you that it not only made me feel good but kept those people in my thoughts. The next time I need to hire someone, I’ll likely think of one of these freelancers.

Even with referrals, not every prospect will turn into a paying client. That’s OK; you can’t take on all those prospects anyway. When a prospect doesn’t become a client, try to figure out why. Sometimes prospects will tell you. Mostly, though, you have to read between the lines or just plain-old ask, doing so professionally and positively. For example:

Thanks for letting me know. I’m glad you found someone who will work for you. If you don’t mind my asking, could you tell me why I wasn’t a good fit? It will help me with future prospects.

Try this process out, and win more clients with less work!

This article original ran as a three-part series on

2 thoughts on “How to Grow Your Editing Business with Referrals

  1. This is all such great advice, Erin. Asking for referrals has always been a weak area for me, even though I totally get the value of it. I’ve been practicing, and I’m getting better.


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