• Advice

What to do when good clients send bad referrals your way

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

I take a lot of pride in the services I provide. Which is why I’m always flattered when clients send referrals my way. It’s one thing to have people approach me because something I wrote online resonated with them and it’s another to have them say, “Hey, your client told me about how awesome you are and I want us to work together, too.”

For most businesses, an endless stream of referrals is the dream. You work really hard to build a good business, to offer a quality product or service, and to have great relationships with clients. You hope that someday you’ll be so darn good at what you do that clients will be the ones who take the lead on driving new business your way.

(Imagine not constantly having to forage for new clients or to sell yourself on curious prospects???)

But there are two reasons why I don’t actively ask my clients for referrals and why I think you should give serious consideration to doing the same.

1) I’m uncomfortable tackling the unknown

I won’t write on subjects of which I have no personal knowledge. I don’t need to be an expert, by any means. However, if the subject is completely foreign to me, it just doesn’t make sense for me to take someone’s money to write about it.

It’s not like I haven’t done it before. Heck, when I first started, I used to say “yes” to everyone. I hadn’t figured out my niche back then and didn’t want to turn someone away because the industry didn’t seem attractive or interesting enough from the outside.

But I quickly learned that there’s a reason why creatives shouldn’t touch certain niches.

In general, it takes a while to fully become acquainted with one’s business and the industry in which they work. But that’s typically not what clients are paying you for as a freelancer, nor do you typically make room for it in your budget. They’re paying you to hit the ground running, whether you’re writing content or building a website. That’s not so easy to do when you have no idea where to start.

There’s also the matter of quality.

I have absolutely no problem admitting that the quality of content I write for niches I’m unfamiliar with will not be very good. Everything will still be well-written, properly structured, and proofread. It’s an issue of fluency.

I’ve seen many writers do this before. They assume they can just recycle what someone else said about a topic online. But that’s not writing. That’s paraphrasing. It’s also dangerous.

One of two things will happen:

  1. Your client realizes you have no idea what you’re talking about and that you just ripped someone off else’s ideas (which won’t reflect very well on your client’s business if noticed).
  2. Your clients’ readers quickly realize that the person who wrote this has no idea what they’re talking about and they decide to go elsewhere for content (again, which won’t reflect well on your client).
  3. If your client sends a referral to you that’s outside of your area of expertise, I get why you’d be eager to say “yes.” Just keep in mind that there’s a reason why you specialize in the first place. It’s a whole lot easier for you to work for a client, and for the two of you to make money from the working relationship, when you understand their business almost as well as your own.

2) I can’t afford to work with bad clients

The other reason why I don’t actively ask my clients for referrals is because they often refer bad clients my way. I get why it happens, too.

It’s a lot like a friend or relative complaining to you about a pain they have. And you say, “I have this really awesome provider who takes care of that for me. Let me give you their information.” You’ve had such good service when it comes to resolving your own pain, that you automatically think to refer the person who helped you.

I mean, that’s what word-of-mouth marketing is all about, right? We want clients to instantly think of us when they hear that someone is experiencing similar issues.

But what do you do when they refer someone who ends up being a s***ty client?

There’s a huge difference between the kind of referral I mentioned before (who isn’t in your niche) and a bad client.

A bad client is someone who:

Doesn’t pay on time.

Doesn’t pay at all.

Expects a bunch of free stuff.

Lowballs you on price.

Comes into the project with unclear goals.

Nitpicks for no reason.

Changes direction or scope mid-project.

Ignores pre-established guidelines.

Calls/texts/emails incessantly.

Is abusive.

We’ve all ended up with a bad client or two and it sucks. Because then we start to question our own methods. Am I the one who’s in the wrong? Am I off my game? Am I an impostor?

When those bad referrals come from good clients, though, those criticisms become tricky. You’ve invested a lot in creating a great relationship with your client, so of course you’re going to fear that any action you take with the bad client will put a strain on it. And, really, it’s a lose-lose. Either:

1. You take the bad client’s abuse and lose money, sleep, and control over your other projects as a result.

2. You fire the bad client as you would any other and they run off to tell your good client and anyone else who will listen about how terrible you were.

It’s not a good place to be in.

The lesson here, then, is to not assume that referrals that come from good clients are going to make good clients themselves. It goes against what we’ve been taught: that if we find a quality niche and community to work in, we’ll never have to worry about getting stuck with bad clients. But, I assure you, bad apples are everywhere and sometimes our good clients are responsible for putting them on the table before us.

What to do when good clients send bad referrals your way

You want referrals from your clients, so you don’t have to work so hard to find new ones. However, you still have to put those referrals through the ringer, just as you would non-referred prospects. It seems counterintuitive, right?

But if you don’t, you risk putting your business and reputation at risk.

So, don’t be afraid to nix referred leads the way you would anyone else if you suspected they’d be a bad fit:

  1. Were they late for the free consultation call and unapologetic about it?
  2. Did they fail to sign your contract on time and then complain when the due date had lapsed?
  3. Did they trash-talk freelancers, employees, or clients they’ve had in the past or have right now?
  4. Is their niche too far out of left field for you?
  5. Are they unclear on what their business does or what their goals are?

Bottom line:

It’s best to rid yourself of bad clients before they have a chance to wreak havoc on your business. I know this might seem like an opportunity to continue making the referring client happy, but there are other ways to go above and beyond for them that won’t cost your business dearly.

A true Millennial, Suzanne Scacca job-hopped for over a decade before finally succumbing to her life-long dream of writing. Now, she crafts content that helps freelancers and small business owners like herself make clearer, smarter, and more profitable decisions.