How to Discourage Prospects From Asking for References

A challenge freelance writers sometimes face is dealing with reference requests from prospective clients.

You know the scenario: You’ve had some preliminary discussions about a prospect’s needs. You provide him or her with a quote. The prospect responds favorably. Everything’s looking good.

But then the prospect asks you for two or three client references.

While prospects have every right to ask for references, we can debate how truly useful they are. (Does anyone ever provide a BAD reference?)

More importantly, responding to reference requests eats up your time and energy—and keeps you jumping through hoops.

Worst of all, it can lead to reference fatigue. So when you really DO need a reference, you can’t go back to your main reference sources—because you’ve already asked them way too many times.

While you may never eliminate requests for references entirely, you can employ strategies to reduce them.

4 Strategies for Cutting Down on Reference Requests

The secret to cutting down on reference requests isn’t what you do when you’re asked for references, but what you do before.

1. Beef Up Your Inbound Marketing

Outbound marketing more often leads to reference requests. After all, when you reach to prospects (and not vice versa), it’s only natural for them to ask for supporting evidence of your skills and experience.

In contrast, inbound marketing is less likely to generate these requests. When prospects come to you through referrals and networking (for example), they already know something about you. And they’ll be more comfortable proceeding without insisting on references.

So if you find yourself dealing with constant reference requests, try shifting more of your marketing from outbound to inbound.

2. Post Client Testimonials on your Website

Honest and detailed testimonials do a great job of alleviating prospect concerns. And that keeps them from asking for more validation in the way of client references.

If you don’t have many testimonials to show, make it a goal to get at least three or four testimonials quickly. From there, get into the habit of asking for a testimonial every time you get a compliment from a client.

3. Position Yourself as an Expert

Try to position yourself as the go-to professional in your niche, whether it’s a particular industry or project type.

On your website and in your marketing materials, communicate that you are the obvious choice in your area of expertise. This alone will squelch many reference requests.

4. Demonstrate Your Track Record

What do you bring to the table? What have you accomplished for other clients? Where have you worked in the past? What awards, recognition or certifications have you received?

Share your track record on your website, social media and anywhere else prospects may go to learn more about you.

What If a Prospect Still Insists on References?

Even with all these pieces in place, you might still have the occasional prospect who insists on having references.

In that case, I suggest you do two additional things:

1. Make sure you’ve properly qualified the prospect

Since you can only make so many trips to the “reference well,” you need to make each trip count. So make sure you’ve qualified the prospect by clearly understanding the following:

  • What they need
  • When they need it
  • Whether you can help them
  • Whether they can afford your fees
  • Who’s authorized to make the decision to hire you
  • How they will make that decision.

Once you have this understanding, you’ll have a pretty good idea of whether the prospect is a good fit for your writing services or not.

And it’s better to know that now—instead of after you’ve provided references.

2. Respond with the following question:

“Sure ________, I’d be happy to provide you with some references. But I wanted to make sure we’re on the same page. If I give you two or three references, and they check out, are you ready to move forward with me on this project?”

This question accomplishes two things: First, it shows that you’re a professional. You’re not willing to automatically agree to everything the prospect wants just because he or she asks.

Second, it forces the prospect to put some skin in the game. Essentially, you’re asking him or her to agree on some ground rules before proceeding. With ground rules in place, it will be more difficult for the prospect to back out or erect new barriers when your references check out.

Providing References Shouldn’t Be a Regular Thing

Of course, eliminating 100 percent of reference requests isn’t a realistic expectation. But these strategies can help you minimize them.

And they can help ensure that, when you do jump through reference hoops, you’re actually getting somewhere.