Why Web Design Client Referrals Aren’t a Slam-Dunk

For a freelancer, referrals can be an essential ingredient to a successful web design business. Booking new clients this way can allow you to forgo at least some of the costs involved with traditional marketing. Plus, there’s something to be said when an existing client goes out of their way to tell a friend about you. It means a lot.

However, it’s not all rainbows. Just because a prospective client came to you via a referral doesn’t mean they’re a great fit. Even so, you might still feel an obligation to work with them anyway. Therein lies the rub.

Maybe it’s because I think too much about these things. But it seems like there is a super-delicate balance here. Do you take on a new client just because you feel like you should? What’s the etiquette? What does it all mean to your relationship with the existing client who was trying to do you a favor? Should I just hide under a blanket until this all blows over?

Yeah, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

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Not All Referrals Are Destined to Succeed

First of all, each and every referral should be appreciated. And I genuinely do feel a sense of gratitude when a client takes the time to do this.

Still, it’s important to understand that a web design referral is a bit different than in other industries. For example, it’s not the same as sending someone to your favorite electrician or real estate agent.

In those businesses, it’s a bit more cut-and-dry. The electrician will gladly fix whatever is going on with your wiring. The real estate agent can show you a variety of homes that fit your budget. In either case, those professionals provide a service and then are probably out of your life until you need them again – which could be years from now.

Web design is unique in that it is both highly-specialized and often entails a long-term relationship. Thus, it’s not just a matter of making a sale and being on your merry way.

Project Needs vs. Your Specialties and Preferences

Sometimes, whether or not a referral is a good fit comes down to code. If you specialize in Drupal and the prospective client requires WordPress, the writing is pretty much on the wall. Easy enough.

It’s not always that simple, though. For instance, I’ve had a number of businesses referred to me who just needed someone to take over maintenance of their existing website. In addition, there have been a few cases where a website wasn’t completely finished and the client needed someone to step in and tie up the loose ends.

This clashes with one of my core policies – to avoid maintaining websites built by someone else. There are occasional exceptions, but I’d prefer to build something from the ground up. It’s just a more comfortable situation for me, one where I feel more confident in my ability to provide great service.

Perhaps it’s a guilty conscience, but the fact that these were referrals complicated my decisions. The idea of potentially letting down an existing client who went out on a limb for you is a powerful thing. Whether that is a realistic view is another subject altogether.

Code displayed on a laptop computer.

Relationship Matters

Just as your specialties may differ from a client’s needs, the potential relationship may not always be so promising. This is something that needs to be carefully considered before signing onto a project.

Again, a referral can cloud things a bit. It’s possible to give someone that extra benefit of the doubt, even when all signs tell you to do otherwise.

I’ve found myself in this situation a few times over the years. Ignoring the red flags, I booked projects and almost immediately regretted doing so.

At the same time, I’ve also had referrals that have worked out wonderfully. The lesson? Scrutinize a referral just as much as you would any other prospective client.

People having a discussion.

So, What Are the Obligations?

Even if a referral should undergo equal scrutiny, there is a case to be made for giving one preferential treatment. These folks are already “in the club”, so-to-speak.

That doesn’t mean that you have to work with them. But it does compel us to at least listen to what they have to say. After all, there’s no real harm in saying “no thanks” if need be.

Maybe the only exception is if you aren’t actively taking on new projects at the time. If you’re simply too busy, it’s probably more polite to say so rather than to waste anyone’s time.

On the other side of the equation, I think there is an obligation to thank your existing client. That should be the case whether you end up working on the new project or not. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate – just a simple thank-you note will do.

And what of the potential impact of turning down a referral on your client relationship? That can be tricky. So much depends on the personalities involved. But honesty really is the best policy. If things didn’t work out, it’s okay to share the outcome if asked.

Appreciate Referrals While Understanding the Reality

A client referral for your web design business can be a blessing. It has the potential to increase revenue and help you gain valuable experience.

But it’s also worth remembering that there are no guarantees. Just because you’ve been connected with a prospective client doesn’t mean you’re required work with them. In fact, the process doesn’t have to be any different than it is for a prospect that contacted you out of the blue.

Regardless of how a project comes to you, it’s really about determining whether the opportunity is right for all stakeholders. If so, your business will be in a better position for it. But if things don’t work out, not to worry.

At the very least, one of your clients was pleased enough with your work to spread the word to others. That is always a positive development.