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Protecting Yourself From Bad Client Referrals

Referrals from existing clients are a designer’s lifeblood. Pitching your web development services in the right way to the right people can make it possible for you to succeed by word of mouth. Most of the referrals you will get bear successful fruit for both you and your new client. But as with all projects, not all of them will work out. And some referred clients will cross the line from being difficult individuals to being something darker.

The fact is, if you are self-employed or freelance, you are a target. There are those who will seek to use you as a means to an end. They will seek you out because they know you have no company structure, managerial oversight, or colleague support to protect you. Your independence, instead of being your greatest asset, becomes your greatest threat. If you are young, new to self-employment, or in a minority, those threats are even greater. So in this post, I am going to explain why some of referrals you will receive are not quite what they seem, and why you need to protect yourself from getting the wrong referrals for the wrong reasons.

We can group wrong business referrals into four categories in order of malice:

  • Referrals that simply turn out to be bad fits between client and provider
  • Referrals made based on the need to achieve a referral quota
  • Referrals made to boost the referrer’s narcissism
  • Referrals made because the referrer is up to something unsavoury.

Bad Fit Referrals

This is the most innocent category of bad referral and you can, and will, be on both sides of the situation. As you well know, not all clients and service providers are ideal matches. Sometimes creative differences come into play, sometimes the scope of work changes, and sometimes the two of you will simply be like oil and vinegar. This will happen whichever way the business comes in, either by your own efforts or by referral, and there is no sense in letting yourself feel down over it. This post at FlyingSolo offers some advice on what to do if you find yourself either on the giving or the receiving end of a bad fit referral.

If a referral project fails, you should contact the existing client who made the referral to explain that the relationship did not work out. Use that conversation as an opportunity to tease out the client’s response to this news; be wary if they take the news as a personal criticism or an accusation. Listen to what your gut is telling you.

Quota Referrals

There is no need to name names, but there are revenue-driven networking groups which require members to make referrals on a quota basis. Group members who fail to meet their quotas are at risk of receiving juvenile public abasement as punishment for their failure. They have to get that quota somehow, even if they have to act like a used car salesman to achieve it. Their referral to your business, in essence, is motivated by fear of personal punishment rather than hope for a productive new venture. And that’s no foundation for a successful client relationship.

It’s best to let these people play their little quota games amongst themselves. Life is too short.

Narcissistic Referrals

Narcissistic referrals come about when the referrer is an emotionally flawed individual whose professional raison d’etre is to be admired as a provider of influence. They talk a big talk about wanting to help grow your business, but that is not what their referrals are really about. A narcissistic referral is all about boosting the referrer’s vanity to prove the one thing that interests them: their greatness.

“See, I am magnificent, because I did these things for you.”

For him, bringing businesses together is validation of his special abilities.

And there lies the problem. Because the narcissist’s referring is a compulsive reflex grounded in a need to be loved, the referrals he will send you are not even viable prospects. They are side projects, hobbyists, and price quote fishers. Eventually it dawns at you…if this person has the connections and influence that he says he has, why has he referred me to his dog owners’ club?

Eventually the referrer’s game will catch up with him as his castle in the sky implodes. And here is what my own narcissistic referrer client had to say after being exposed as little more than a con artist:

“As you know, until recently I was possibly your most fervent ambassador and put business your way whenever I could. Most importantly, I counted on you as a friend and colleague – and supported you, championed you, stood up for you, and defended you in more ways than you’ll ever know.”

This is a masterful example of narcissistic personality disorder in action. He does not understand that his compulsive referrals were a waste of time; he does not understand that professionals do not view their clients as ‘friends’; and he does not understand that I am not a damsel in distress who needed his support, championship, or defence. Yet because I have failed to assert his greatness, the narcissist referrer wants me to feel ashamed of myself.

A client can make one bad referral to you. It can and will happen. If they make two, you need to tread carefully. If they make three or more, don’t just stop taking the referrals. Drop the client. Running a business has enough challenges without being manipulated by an empire builder.

Referrals-with-benefits

The most dangerous types of bad referrals are those made when there is something in it above and beyond the business arrangement. By this I do not mean a referral fee or reward, which many businesses offer as an incentive, and which are perfectly acceptable. “Referrals with benefits” involve kickbacks, subcontracts, or something unsavoury on the side. The referring client is presenting you with an opportunity and setting you up at the same time.

An example of a referral with benefits might be a company director agreeing to pay Business A to do some work, and in the scope of work agreement, stipulating that Business A take x amount of the project payment and give it to Contractor B, a fellow director, to do a completely separate project. Contractor B takes the referral as a standalone project, having no idea that the payment is essentially a kickback from a Board on which they sit which is being being laundered through another business.

Groucho Marx famously said “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Groucho was a very wise man. If an individual or an organisation is desperate to pass new business your way, ask yourself why that is. Invite referrals, welcome them, and profit from them, of course. But protect yourself at every step of a referred project. That fantastic opportunity a client is giving you might just be a wooden horse at your door.

  • Interesting article, Heather. And I agree in particular on the ‘Quota referrals” – I hate that type of organisation and the way in which they encourage members to do business.

    • Heather Burns

      A colleague who paid several hundred pounds to join one of these groups later told me that if she had wanted to attend a weekly meeting in a hotel where the group members were ordered to venerate the founder guru before engaging in structured verbal abuse of each other, she would have stayed in Alcoholics Anonymous.

      • Love it! My other problem with these groups is the unearthly hour they hold their meetings at (some of them, at least). I’m most definitely not a morning person.

  • Nik Jones

    This is great Heather, I’ve just had a bad-fit referral, resulting in the client doing something you just don’t do. Draining!

  • Justin Reynolds

    Thank you, sage advice as ever. Things are not always as they seem, and this gives me more insight into some of the stranger referrals I’ve encountered myself.

    • Heather Burns

      Thanks Justin. You have written elsewhere on Everyday Designer about the importance of specialisation, and that advice could form part of a designer’s armour. If you are not crystal clear about what markets you work with and which services you offer – and even if you are – some people are always going to see you as “that person who does web sites.” From that misunderstanding comes bad, if well-meaning, referrals for projects and clients that are not worth getting out of bed for.

  • Good read Heather, one of my better clients from down the years throws as much extra work as they can in my direction, some work out, others don’t, but it’s good knowing that I have people out there trying to help despite the risk of the referral possibly being a ‘bad fit’

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