3 Places to Look for Potential Clients
By Laura Stevens
Forming genuine connections with people, instead of just looking for their business, is the best way to gain new clients and ensure your success as a consultant.
“The fact is great relationships are based on great conversations, not one person showing the other how smart they are.“
Andrew Sobel, Author, speaker and client-relationship coach
Landing your first client as a consultant can be a thrilling experience. It means someone actually respects your work enough to hire you. It means they believe in you. The feeling can be quite empowering—and a great motivator to do an excellent job. But where do these true believers exist, and how will you find the next one, or the next ten?
Client acquisition is an integral part of any successful consulting business, and when you are just starting out, you may find yourself having to spend more time building your client base than performing your actual services. Of course, once you are established, your happy clients will help spread the word and start sending you referrals. In the meantime, however, you will want to sharpen your networking and communication skills. Over time, these efforts will pay off because you will have fostered genuine relationships with people and organizations that have come to trust and value what you have to offer.
Connecting instead of networking
The idea of meeting and talking to strangers for the purpose of gaining their business is not everyone’s cup of tea, and understandably so. It can be an intimidating experience where the dialogue often feels forced, superficial or even fake. How many times have you found yourself trapped in an awkward conversation, discreetly glancing around for a colleague, or anyone at all, to come to your rescue?
Don’t be that guy. Instead of networking, try making genuine connections with others based on who they are rather than what you stand to gain from them. Be curious. Ask questions. Find some common ground and build from there. Listen to the other person before planning your next words. People know when they’re being “schmoozed,” and it can be an instant buzzkill. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about forming a relationship.
Where to look for potential clients
Below are three tried-and-true areas for fostering relationships and building your initial client base. Some may be easier to develop than others, thus an effective approach would be to start with what feels most comfortable and gradually cultivate the others as you hone your communication skills.
- Colleagues and associates. These folks already know what you do and have a positive relationship with you. Maybe you used to work together and have since become personal friends, or maybe you cross paths occasionally or just run in the same circles. In any case, these are people who can speak to your experience and professionalism. You may be connected to them on LinkedIn, but instead of emailing or contacting them via social media, pick up the phone and initiate a conversation. Let them know you are beginning a consulting business and would appreciate any referrals or business contacts they’d like to share. Suggest meeting for coffee or lunch to catch up (your treat), and follow up with an email or text to solidify the appointment. Once you’ve had a chance to describe your new endeavor, some associates may offer to contact potential clients on your behalf, turning that warm lead to hot!
- Former employers. If you have positive or neutral relationships with former employers and co-workers, go ahead and hit them up. Like your colleagues, they are familiar with the quality of your work and quite possibly will have direct connections to people in need of your services. Your old boss could even become a client, as many companies are jumping onto the outsourcing bandwagon and hiring consultants and contractors to perform work previously done by employees. Keep in mind: If your consulting business could possibly compete with a former employer, you may be bound by a non-compete agreement, which was likely signed when you were hired and went into effect when you left the company. Per the terms of the agreement, be sure the allotted time has elapsed before you begin consulting.
- Professional and industry organizations. There are multiple advantages to joining professional and trade organizations, both national and local. In addition to meeting like-minded individuals in your field, it’s a great way to stay abreast of the latest trends in your industry, which is essential to your success as a consultant. The key to making the most of organizational memberships is participation. Attend the events, whether they are online or in person, volunteer to sit on a committee, or run for a leadership position. The more you can commit to the organization, the better your prospects will be. You will definitely want to include these organizations as part of your consulting resume or CV, as they will add depth and validity to your overall appeal. (Tip: To locate national professional organizations by industry, visit Careeronestop.com, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor.)
Hone your skills and get back in the game
Maintaining connections to build your client base requires regular and focused communication. However, a research study conducted by Yale University found that personal and professional networks decreased by about 16% from 2019 to 2020 due to COVID-19. Businesses, along with the rest of the world, experienced a steep decline in in-person events, meetings and activities—a trend that was just beginning to reverse, but with the onslaught of new variants, has stalled as we are forced to proceed with caution. And while online meetings have provided a much-needed remedy and will no doubt continue well into the future, Zoom fatigue is a thing.
The solution? Get back out there–but do it safely and follow best practices for social distancing. We are not out of the woods yet as far as coronavirus is concerned, and Omicron is just the latest variant to assert itself on global populations, including the U.S. When setting up that first meeting, ask the potential client if they are comfortable meeting in person. If they are, they may still wish to keep their distance and wear a mask. Any physical contact, such as hugging or shaking hands, should not be initiated unless all parties are okay with it. Masks are still preferred in most public places, and sit outdoors if possible.
When forging new business relationships, the value of meeting face to face, or mask to mask to be au courant, cannot be overstated. Your mere presence demonstrates a willingness to actively connect with the potential client. Eye contact and body language cultivate trust, and conversations flow more freely, allowing more ideas to be generated and expressed. This can all be accomplished while respecting boundaries and practicing social distancing, so put your best foot forward and land that client!
Not quite ready? If your communication skills feel a little rusty, check out the communications courses offered by UT’s Center for Professional Education, as well as the Communication Skills for Professionals Certificate Program.
Laura Stevens is a marketing communications writer and content strategist. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.
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