Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 17, 2001.

Unfortunately, many clients lament that hiring a consultant is a gamble. They often feel like they don’t have enough real information to assess candidates, so they pin the tail on a consultant and hope their project gets completed competently and on time.

To convince potential clients that you are the right person for the project, you can stand out by presenting a slew of great recommendations. However, you need to know how to ask for them from former clients. This requires you to stay on top of your relationship with all your former clients, never letting them forget who you are and what a great job you’ve done for them.

I’ll tell you how to approach clients to provide the kinds of references to help you win the next project and assure potential clients of your quality work.

Obtain a letter of recommendation

My favorite reference is a letter of recommendation that I include in a Recommendations (not References) section of my portfolio. This type of recommendation carries several benefits:

  • Potential clients don’t have to make phone calls to learn what former clients think about the work I’ve done. Of course, I also tell clients that — upon request — I can provide contact information for recommendations.
  • Recommendations immediately show my work has benefited previous clients; I don’t have to hope that Human Resources calls my references and then passes on accurate information to the person doing the hiring.
  • Over time, the number of accumulated recommendations becomes quite impressive. Anyone can come up with one or two decent letters, but clients can’t ignore five, 10, or more.

For these reasons, I ask every one of my clients to write a letter of recommendation instead of simply being a reference. A benefit for the former clients is that writing such a letter reduces the number of phone calls they receive from future clients, which is important when you take on several projects in a year. Reducing the number of calls also means they’ll be more likely to hand out glowing references to the occasional caller.

Write your own?

Don’t be surprised if clients ask you to write the letter of recommendation and bring it to them to sign. Many people think they don’t have the time and/or the writing skills to write a letter on your behalf.

Although there are certainly ethical implications to writing your own recommendation, I’ve decided that sometimes it’s the only solution, although not the best one.

You can suggest to the client that you will provide a bulleted list of the work you’ve done and its benefits, but that the client should write the actual letter. In your summary, don’t list only hard skills and the outline of what you’ve done (“designed and implemented an inventory database”) but also how your work added value at the company (“that enabled Company X to decrease warehousing costs by 23 percent”). If you beat deadlines, brought a project in under budget, or successfully dealt with special challenges, note that too.

If the client still insists that you write your own, don’t let this prevent you from getting the reference you deserve. Instead, write an honest, objective summary of what you did for the client and how it benefited the company.

Make sure that everyone who signs off on the letter actually reads it, and provide a photocopy of the signed letter for the client’s records. You may even receive some interesting feedback on your work that you wouldn’t otherwise get.

Maintain the relationship

For clients who write you a recommendation, ask permission to give their contact information as a reference to future clients.

Many people don’t like to be pestered by such phone calls, so assure them you’ll provide their contact information selectively and upon request. It shouldn’t be long until you have enough clients that no two or three will have to bear the entire reference load. Tell clients you’ll notify them whenever you’ve listed them as a reference.

As you can see, your recommendation doesn’t end once you obtain that piece of paper. It’s likely that each of your references will receive a call from prospective clients at least once a year.

For this reason as well as others, it’s important to maintain your relationship with your references; it would be embarrassing if a former client has to be reminded of who you are.

Maintain communication a couple of times a year, if possible. Your goal is to keep the memory of who you are and what you’ve done for clients fresh in their minds. Consider sending a very brief, quarterly e-mail newsletter to all former clients, summarizing your recent projects and any newly acquired skills or certifications. In addition, keeping a high profile with former clients also increases the chances that they’ll remember you when they need help on future projects.

References on Web sites

If you have a Web site, you probably list former clients and a summary of what you did for them. But is it okay to post your letters of recommendation on your Web site?

The best way to approach this is to ask the person who wrote the letter if it’s acceptable to post it online. Ask if he or she would like to give you a short bio to include at the end of the letter. This benefits your contacts by providing them with additional exposure and marketing in your field.

However, I don’t recommend that you provide online contact information. You should always know who is contacting your references and when.

As you can see, maintaining a good relationship with former clients will help you reach future clients. Keeping in touch with former clients and adding to the “Recommendations” section of your portfolio is a great way to convince future clients of your ability to handle their project.

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