Let me tell you a secret: People talk!
Oh, that wasn’t a secret? Well, when it comes to people starting their own businesses I often wonder if it is. You see, even in our internet integrated digitally connected modern society the age old principle of word of mouth is still the key to success, especially for a new or growing business. And it all starts with finding Client Zero.
The Power of the Referral
When you are looking to get some professional help, whether it be for a renovation, a kink in your back, or a new new computer, what is the first thing you do? You ask your friends for recommendations. Why? Lacking personal experience you trust the experiences of your friends and let their advice guide you. This phenomenon is amplified when it comes to business. When a business owner is looking for a service she is likely to reach out to others in her own field for advice. And the advice she gets is usually acted on. The referral is worth its proverbial weight in gold.
The obvious question then is “how do you get people to refer you in the first place?” The answer is to carve a niche, find your Client Zero, deliver a premium product, and have a plan.
Carve a niche
Rather than casting a broad net to capture any and every potential client that gets within your reach, carve a niche and specialize in one or two specific industries. That way you can learn their language and needs and be able to provide customized services other consultants won’t be aware of. With some effort you can become the go-to person for this type of work, and once you are trusted in a professional circle, one project will usually lead to the next through referrals.
In picking a niche market to pursue it is important to do your research: Find industries that on average have poor or outdated websites or industries that have yet to realize the potential of the web. Some examples include professional services and specialty retail. Chances are some of these industries will already be served by web companies in your area while others are largely ignored. Hone in on the ones where you have little competition but many potential clients.
Finally, make sure you pursue an industry with a solid revenue stream. While it is fun to work with creative businesses, many of these earn little money and they often have outlandish expectations and demands. The last thing you want is to be in a constant battle for reasonable budgets while at the same time striking down requests for “upgrades” or the latest cool feature your client saw on a website somewhere. Industries that have a more solid revenue stream may appear to be less interesting but present their own unique challenges and have bigger budgets to work with. They are also more used to working with outside contractors and will have a more reasonable approach to project management and budgeting.
To put it bluntly, when you are starting out you shouldn’t pursue slim fish.
Finding Client Zero
When you’ve found a niche market to work in you need to establish a name within that industry. This is where finding Client Zero becomes important. You need to land a client that will give you an inroad into the industry. Here’s how:
- Look for a client with a project where you can showcase your talents. Your time is best spent working on a larger and more challenging project that can serve as a showcase for future clients. By seeking out a client with the right type of project rather than letting the clients come to you and picking projects with a quick turn-around for an easy buck you are building a solid foundation for future referrals.
- Educate yourself about your client. Before meeting with the client, educate yourself about her business and her business needs. The client is not just hiring you for your ability to build a website: She is hiring you as a consultant and is looking to you for advice on how the website can help her business. Coming to the meeting with ideas that go beyond simply building a pamphlet or directory website will show the client you are invested in her and her success.
- Learn the language. Every industry has its own unique language. Learning this language, whether it be acronyms, terms, or even a way of talking, will allow you to communicate more clearly with your client and also make her feel you are part of the team rather than an outside entity. Learning the language of your client means listening to not only what she has to say but how she says it. Take note of words, acronyms, and phrases used, learn and understand them, and incorporate them into your own language when communicating.
- Deliver solutions. When pitching potential clients or delivering a proposal, be exhaustive and deliver solutions. First spell out the scope of the project and the requests from the client and explain in detail how you will meet and deal with each. Then look at the project from your own perspective and in relation to your client’s competitors and propose additional features and approaches that can help differentiate your client. Adding your own take on the project and suggesting additional features shows the client you are invested in the success of her business and providing not just the ability to build a website but also your expertise.
Deliver a Premium Product
This goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: Always deliver a premium product. A good rule of thumb that ensures you leave a lasting impression is to go above and beyond and work on a +10 principle: Deliver what was expected plus 10% extra. That way you’ll always leave your client impressed and pretty much guarantee a referral.
Have a plan
Most importantly, have a plan. When you specialize in a field you will inevitably get locked into a cycle of repetition. New clients will want the same thing your last client got and it’s hard to think outside a box you’ve built yourself.
The second you feel you are becoming a robot producing the same website over and over you have to make a choice: Do you want to go be a product delivery service or a creative service. Both are laudable, both have their pros and cons, and both can become your life’s work or your biggest regret. The problem is you usually won’t realize you’ve gotten to the fork in the road until you are long past it and headed full speed down the path of product delivery. If your plan was to be a creative you need to have plans laid out in advance on how to phase yourself out of the tried and true and move on to more creative work.
Here’s a few tips to keep your mind fresh and ensure you don’t build the walls of your box too high:
- Work on personal projects. The Personal Project is the staple of the creative industry. Every major player, from James White to Jessica Hiche and beyond, honed their skills on personal projects and in many cases these personal projects ended up informing their careers and taking them down new and surprising paths.
- Build your portfolio. Document the work you do, both professional and personal. The web is a fickle beast that tends to eat or spirit away your creations. Keeping videos, screen grabs, and other documentation of the work you’ve done will allow you to showcase your skills even after the actual product is replaced by a newer model.
- Scope out new avenues. Always be on the lookout for the next exit. New things happen on the web every day and new paths open up all the time. Being aware of what’s happening and taking a turn off the beaten path when you see your chance can lead to great things.
What’s your strategy? What’s your story?
Every business owner has her own strategy when it comes to landing clients and building a list of referrals. What’s yours? Do you specialize in a niche market or work on everything? Are you picking your projects or are your clients picking you? And do you have a plan for your next step? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!