You’ve finally decided to get serious about your business. You’ve created a website with your offers, filled your portfolio with the best work that you’ve created over the years, and now you’re ready to open the doors to new clients.
You hold your breath and wait... and wait... and wait some more... but the clients aren’t showing up.
Your mailbox is filled only with offers from Nigerian royalty, fake lottery winnings and medication for mature gentlemen. (Plus the seventy billion newsletters you’ve subscribed to.)
The only people calling you on the phone are your besties and your mom.
And the bills are piling up.
Where are the clients?
You’re getting impatient. You know there are people who need what you offer. You’ve done some great work for a few clients, and you’re confident that your service has a lot of value.
Still, the clients aren’t showing up.
You start looking for advice online, in books or courses on how to promote your work.
Some of them tell you to start doing content marketing.
Just publish useful, helpful, valuable stuff for free, and people will come to your website in droves.
Sure, content marketing rocks and I highly recommend it. But there’s one thing I tell my students and clients every time: content marketing takes a loooong time to work. It’s not a quick fix for your empty wallet. It might take months or years before one of your subscribers decides to buy your service.
The other school of thought will tell you to start pitching your services to people who still haven’t heard of you.
This advice may be boiled down to the following process:
- Compile a list of people and/or companies you’d like to work with.
- Create a tailored portfolio and/or offer that speaks to their need.
- Send a personalized email introducing yourself, presenting your offer and asking for the opportunity to talk to them in person or over the phone.
There are several problems with this approach:
- You don't know anything about their true needs. You’re just guessing based off of information you’ve collected online, and you may be way off the mark.
- When you’re chasing a client, you put yourself in a less favorable position. The client will have an upper hand in the negotiation and may try to discount your prices, insist on their own (faulty) process, and make all sorts of demands that you, in your eagerness to get work, will agree to.
- Most recipients won’t even bother reading your email. They have their own agenda and a million-items-long to-do list, and here you are, invading their inbox with an unsolicited offer. “Mark as spam.”
Success rates for a cold pitching campaigns are not very high. For every 100 emails sent, you might get 5 replies back, and only one project. (I'm totally making these numbers up based on what I've heard from other people, since I've never personally done this.) That’s a lot of work for a low return if you’re doing it properly and customizing every email. If you don't customize your email at all, your offer is irrelevant and gets ignored.
Surely there must be better ways to meet potential clients?
Of course there are. I’ve done pretty much everything but cold pitching, and it worked out fine. Here’s a list of my favorite ways. Pick one, or try all of them, and I bet your client list will grow very quickly.
1. Meet with potential clients in person
I’ve had many clients whom I’ve only communicated with online, but no matter how awesome the internet is, it's still much easier to make a great impression in person. People feel like they can trust you more after they’ve spent some time with you, and it makes all your following conversations much smoother.
Yes, I mean you need to get out of your house more.
A lot of people hate networking because they associate it with speed-date type throw-your-business-card-at-as-much-people-as-possible networking events. Forget about those, people come to them with their own agenda. There are many other options that are more fun for you, and where you're also likely to form sincere relationships based on personality resonance and mutual interest. (I wrote more about the power of relationships for career growth in my post: It’s all about who you know.)
Visit the type of event where your ideal clients spend their time.
The places you can meet your prospects can be industry conferences, workshops, seminars, meetups, and other themed events, but they can also be leisure events. I attend a lot of sci-fi conventions, and some of my fandom friendships have turned into business relationships. If your clients are mostly mothers and you're a mom yourself, go attend get-togethers for moms. If they're hippy tree-huggers, join a local environmental organization and volunteer for clean up events.
Here’s a free Authentic Promotion Guidebook that can help you determine where your ideal clients hang out.
Make genuine connections. Don’t expect work to come from the first meeting, but do stay in touch and pop up again and again around the same folks. A familiar face is the first to come to mind when they finally need your service, or someone close to them needs it. Speaking of which...
2. Nurture your referral network
Word of mouth is the main source of clients for most service businesses. There’s a good reason for that: people trust other’s recommendations way more than they trust your own marketing. If a person they trust told them you do great work, they’ll trust you, too.
Referrals can come from past clients, past school or work colleagues, friends and family, but also from people who follow you on social media and blog. (I've gotten referrals from people I barely even know.)
The trick is to remind people of what you do, and who you can help. Email people from your network individually (not a mass email), or post a status on Facebook explaining what you do and who your ideal clients are. Ask them if they know someone they can recommend your services to.
Make asking for referrals an essential step in your client process: after successfully finishing a project and getting that shiny testimonial from a happy client, ask them whether they can introduce you to someone who might need just the thing you do.
3. Become the go-to expert
Given the choice between working with just another freelancer or an expert consultant, most clients would choose an expert—if they can afford one! Getting your clients to see you as an expert is one of the most effective methods to increase your reputation and reach higher-paying clients.
What’s the main difference from me in 2015 and me in 2016? During 2016 I did 6 speaking gigs and workshops (some of them paid), compared to just one in the year prior. I’ve also been interviewed for a major local IT news portal.
My industry knowledge did not drastically change within the course of the year, but I’ve gotten a boost in my profile just by starting to appear everywhere. That sort of thing really makes an impression. My new clients were excited to work with me, because I’ve proved myself as an expert before we’ve even had a chance to talk face to face.
Look for opportunities where you can share your expertise with a large group of people.
Apply to local meetups and conferences. Submit your speaking proposals to local educational institutions and start-up incubators. Identify relevant websites you can write articles for. Get on the radar of journalists who write about your niche, and ask them whether you can offer help with a story they’re writing.
These opportunities might be free, but you might even get paid to do some of them. Earning money while also raising your professional credibility? Can it get any better than that?
(Some people recommend that you answer questions in Facebook groups, on Quora, Reddit etc. I personally haven’t had much success with this technique because my ideal clients don't hang out there. Feel free to try it and if it doesn’t work, move on.)
Once you gather enough experience presenting your ideas through speaking, teaching, and writing articles, you can try writing and publishing a book. This one will take a lot of time so it's not a quick fix for an empty bank account, but it's good to keep in mind for the future if you want to spread your knowledge in a way that's convenient and affordable for your audience.
4. Raise your prices & improve your negotiation skills
Maybe you’re getting plenty of inquiries already, but you’re not making the money you need because you’re pricing your services too low, or discounting them whenever someone asks. Instead of looking for more clients, make the most of those you’re already getting. I like to say to my colleagues: if you love your work, charge more.
Everyone could use getting better at sales and negotiation. You need to be able to state your prices with confidence, and not budge when people pressure you for a discount. A great resource on negotiation is the blog and the bite-sized videos by Devon Smiley.
Stop playing in the low priced field
Freelancing sites like UpWork and Freelancer are full of people who offer a commodity service for a bargain price. If you show up on those websites, you’ll be compared to those freelancers. Clients come to freelancing sites with the expectation to find a “reasonably priced” (ie. cheap) services. If you decide to charge what your work is worth, you’ll be swimming against the current there.
You’re better off not even showing up on freelancing sites. Let stingy clients compare apples to oranges, and you stay away from that mess and keep your premium status as a fresh, juicy, exotic mango.
(Besides, you won’t have to share a 20% cut with a third party.)
Don’t chase clients – be a sought after expert instead. You can do it.
These 4 alternatives to pitching will help you build relationships, present your expertise and master the sales process.
Combined together, they’ll insure that you always have clients lined up, and never have to worry about where your next paycheck will come from.
That’s worth a bit of extra effort, don’t you think?