Burning Consulting Questions: How To Get Clients?

I talk to a good number of freelancers/consultants, and I hear this same burning consulting question from a lot of people, both new and established:

I understand you run a successful consulting business and was wondering if you have any “tips” regarding how to get clients?

OK, here comes a “Constulants hate him” moment: I haven’t had to work all that hard to keep my business busy. I’ve been reasonably fortunate in two ways regarding client acquisition:

  1. 80% of my firms’ work comes from word-of-mouth referrals, and
  2. The other 20% comes from people just phoning in after finding my company on Google.

The majority of my business revenue comes from selling new projects to existing clients, far more so than by selling new projects to new clients.  My experience has been that the best answer to “how to get clients” is “sell to the clients you already have”.

That said, at the moment I do find myself looking to fan the flames of marketing a bit. I recently devised a new strategy for marketing my business locally, and I’m not 100% certain it’s going to work. It’s something I’ve never tried before (at least not for driving business to my consulting practice), but I’ll report back with results once I’ve implemented it.

Here’s what I did when I was starting out:

I sent hand-written  letters to the owner of every tech firm in town.

I greeted them, explained that I had just moved here, and that I wanted to introduce myself. I offered to take them to lunch and talk shop.

Bear in mind, I was flat broke – I had just moved to a completely new town, bought a house, and promptly gotten laid off of my telecommute job.  Sure, I was scared and in bad shape – I can scarcely think of worse circumstances to start freelancing in – but I never let them see me sweat. What I let them see was a useful guy who was one of them.  I just didn’t know how to get clients without having an established relationship first, and even to this day the idea seems odd to me.

In targeting the community of existing tech firms, I had a (very patient) plan how to get clients.  

didn’t feel like I was up to prospecting directly for the end-clients, and frankly I didn’t want to. My intent was to scoop up some easy subcontracting gigs, and I did – eventually.Like Brennan, I did a lot of e-mail work in those early days, dropping helpful tips on people & directing them to things I thought they’d fine interesting and/or useful.

By doing so, I established myself not as “other” but as a part of what was already going on, a guy who had value to provide.  It took 3 months before my first paid gig popped up.

I would pretend I had clients even when I didn’t.  

It was important to appear as though I had something going on on my own already, just to create the image of value. Brennan mentions subtly reminding people that you do this stuff for a living in his piece, and I did – even when I had absolutely nothing going on project-wise.

“Fake it ’till you make it” is oft-repeated advice in the business world – I’ve never heard it applied to how to get clients, but this is essentially what I was doing; I presented the image of an established, in-demand freelancer, and was treated as such by those who met me.

Even in desperation, I set – and held – boundaries.

When people *did* start reaching out to me with real work, I never jumped on it too eagerly. “Well, I’m all booked up this week – and then some! – but we can get together next week to kick off your project”.

I’d get them signed up and get the deposit right away, of course (you are getting deposits, right?), but I never dropped anything and rushed off to see anyone on the spur of the moment.  At all times, the appearance that my time was valuable was being maintained.

Again, this was a method of earning respect by holding strong boundaries and reminding people that I had value.

I got in front of people, even if it required humbling myself.

I once was offered a gig teaching web design classes. It was a 2-day class that only paid $100/day, and the class was only held once a month. I hated the idea of teaching this class, and I felt like I was accomplished enough career-wise that I shouldn’t have to take a gig like that, but let’s be honest – those groceries weren’t going to buy themselves.

Even so, I kept the big picture in mind, maintained strong boundaries and made it clear that I did have other things going on, too. My being humble enough to check my ego and just do the work, I exposed myself to further opportunity – through one of the students in my class, I closed a consulting deal that ended up putting about $10K in my pocket over the course of about 2 months. That alone made teaching the class well, well worth it.

So, what are you waiting for? Go get yourself in front of some people, either in-person or via e-mail, and be helpful & instructive to them. That’s how to get clients.  It’s certainly not going to hurt your business.

Feel free to discuss your go-to moves for acquiring consulting clients in the comments.

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