“The best advertising is done by satisfied customers.” — Philip Kotler.

There is this little restaurant, in my city, that I love. It’s been there for ages, it was there when I was growing up, and it is still there. When we face the question of where to go out, my wife and I choose this restaurant, consistently. We absolutely love this place. The service is great, the food is delicious and they go the extra mile to make you feel satisfied. I even remember this one time when there was an issue with the credit card reader, and to reassure me, the owner gave me his personal phone number and told me that should there be a problem, to call him, anytime. I was surprised and absolutely impressed by this gesture. Doubly so when I learned how busy he is. 

Whenever someone comes to visit me from another city or abroad, this would be the first place I recommend, and when they have a positive experience, they thank me and recommend this place to their friends and family. 

The restaurant has nearly taken over the boardwalk it’s on, and still, they keep adding a table or two. To them, we are important, or at least, that’s how I feel. 

Why am I telling you this? Well, I thought this would be the best example of what word of mouth referral is (excluding the fact that I didn’t name the restaurant — should you come and visit, I definitely will!).

1 - Referrals

Word of mouth referral is when your client is so impressed with your service or product, that they pass the word onward, to their friends and family, who in turn, if satisfied, pass it on to their friends. It’s ad-free and based on trust and customer satisfaction. 

Think about the last time you’ve experienced something similar. How many of your friends and relatives have you told? Have they visited the place, used the service or bought the product? What have they said?

For businesses, individual entrepreneurs and freelancers, word of mouth referrals are extremely important. It’s the bread and butter of their success as it allows for growth (oftentimes, exponential growth), recognition, recurring and new connections and more. Freelancers, who have limited resources and time, rely on this the most. 

To be perfectly honest, word of mouth referrals are by far the most effective. According to a recent study by Nielsen, 90% of consumers around the world say they trust word-of-mouth from their friends and family above all other forms of advertising and placed the highest level of trust in word-of-mouth recommendations from people they know.

Before we continue, to avoid confusion, I would like to make several things clear: 

There is word of mouth referrals, there are targeted word of mouth referrals and there is affiliate marketing. Word of mouth referrals occur on their own and are most often associated with individuals and freelancers. Targeted word of mouth referrals are usually incentivized by small businesses with platforms, forms and specific incentives to support their requests. Affiliate marketing involves paying a commission for every referral which yielded a purchase. 

I would like to offer my insights into the word of mouth referrals, which could be most useful to freelancers but also to small businesses. 

Be Good, Do Good

2 - Be Good

This goes without saying — you have to offer a good service or a product. Nobody is going to recommend you or refer to you if they’ve had a negative experience. Not only that, but they’ll probably recommend against working with you. Bad news travels fast. 

Take, for example, a plumber. If he comes and does his job well, you are more likely to recommend him to one of your friends or relatives. On the other hand, should the experience be a bad one, you’d probably say “stay away from this guy”. 

But offering something good is only half of it. Don’t forget to support and respond. Mistakes and accidents are unavoidable. Be responsive, take responsibility, offer something in return, show the client that you care for him and the client will certainly refer to you in the future. 

You Care, They Share

3 - You Care

A personal touch can go along way. Focus on relationships. Be honest, genuine and respectful. Initiate conversations, show interest and be responsive. I know that if I get a rapport with a professional, I am more likely to not only use his services again but to refer others to that person. 

This happened recently with a hairdresser whose services I required. Not only did I like the haircut, but I enjoyed talking to him. He remembers the names of my family members, asks about them, remembers what I told him the last time I visited and follows on that the next time I come, and now, because of this, my wife, my son, my brother, our parents and my wife’s aunt all go to the same person, and I know for a fact that my wife’s aunt also recommended him to one of her friends. I’ve recommended him to them because he treated me well. 

This show of attention and interest, like the restaurant owner who gave me his personal phone number, will show your clients that you care about them, and in their mind, they will know that whoever they send your way will get the same treatment. Try remembering their names, purchasing habits, start a conversation, get to know them and they will appreciate it. Always greet them with a smile, like you would an old friend. And don’t forget, if and when you get a referral from your client, make sure to thank them.

Exceed Expectations

4 - Exceed

Exceeding expectations and creating the “WOW!” effect will undoubtedly skyrocket the number of referrals to you. My favorite restaurant, for example, oftentimes would bring my wife a small croissant when she ordered coffee, free of charge, or the staff would go a long way to entertain my son when he’d start crying, bringing him sweets, crayons, and even street-performing to calm him. 

The art of exceeding expectations doesn’t rely solely on “free stuff”. It’s not what’s important. What is important is you going the extra mile to make your client feel special or make their lives easier. It’s about doing something nice, and unexpected. I’ve interviewed one of my colleagues who’s a designer and who’s had a lot of freelancing experience, and she said that when she offered to make small editions to her work without any extra cost or adding 3 more items to the promised 10, her clients were so grateful, impressed and happy that many of them referred to her other clients, saying: “I’ve worked with this girl and she is amazing”. 

Exceeding expectations will also make you stand out from others, who provide the same service or product as you do. Go the extra mile, get creative. Find a way to make your clients feel special or make their lives easier. After all, the last impression you leave is often the longest lasting. 

Make Referrals Easy

Now that you understand the importance of word of mouth referrals, understand that you also need to make this process easy. Make sure that your clients have your phone number, links to your website, social media accounts. Provide them with a business card or a brochure or fridge magnets! Make information about you, your product and your service easily available so that it can be shared just as easily. Make it easy to spread the good word about you. 


Offer a rewards program to boost your referrals. Give something back to those who support you. This could be something personal like a handcrafted penguin statuette, or something of value like a discount, a gift card or something else, even promising to refer to your clients is a great idea. There is an amazing example online, which shows how effective referrals are.

When Dropbox was launched, they immediately offered a two-sided incentive referral program, where, for every friend you brought, you and your friend would get additional storage (up to 16GB free). Within 15 months, Dropbox’s users have grown from 100,000 in 2008 to almost 4,000,000 — an increase of 3900%

Get Your Referrals Rolling

If you want your business to thrive and survive, you’ve got to get people talking about it. More than that, get them to refer to you. Word of mouth referrals are important. They are the most trusted types of referrals, they are cheap, exceptionally useful for freelancers and individuals, and highly beneficial for small businesses. 

Getting referrals boils down to several key elements. Providing a good service or product is essential. No one will ever recommend or refer to bad service. Adding a personal touch will add value to your service and will encourage referrals. Your client will appreciate your taking the time to get to know them. Exceeding expectations will skyrocket your referrals. Going above and beyond than what is required of you will make your clients feel special and encourage them to send more people your way. Offering incentives is good, but this option is not available to all. Finally, one must make it easy to be referred to. All roads must lead to you.