Learn how to create and build relationships with customers.
You’re an entrepreneur, you love what you do, and you want to get clients so you can focus on what you do best.
When I started as a freelance designer 16 years ago, I was frustrated at how I didn’t have enough work to keep me busy or even match the salary I used to have. I had to learn all sorts of skills like networking, public speaking, proposal writing, negotiating and yes, even sales.
In year one, I managed to get two-thirds of my original income. In year two – I matched that salary. For year three, it was triple – and it was then I started to realize that I wasn’t "freelance" any more. I hired my first staff member and now have six employees and a business that’s been going for a total of 16 years.
Looking back on the past 16 years got me thinking about what I would tell a younger version of myself to avoid mistakes and speed up the progress I made. Here are six tips and lessons on how to grow your business through customer acquisition.
1. You don’t have to be a salesperson to sell
As a freelancer, people aren’t expecting you to be super slick and confident when selling. While you should develop sales skills, clients mostly want you to be knowledgeable, talented and passionate. In fact, clients often prefer to speak to the person who knows about the project from a first-hand perspective. They will forgive you if you aren’t the best presenter or if you haven’t quite mastered small talk. Being sincere, hardworking, clear and interested in them will bring you many wins.
2. You do have to be visible, though
I learned early on that I needed to expand my network so I could keep paying my living expenses. If you’re a designer like me, you will probably also need to meet people at business networking events. I found that working on my public speaking helped immensely, and I joined Toastmasters, an international organization with local clubs all around the world focused on helping people improve their public speaking.
Here’s what I recommend:
Network: Join at least one business networking or peer group. Visit a few local groups and choose which one feels right. By doing this, you get a chance to practice describing what you do, learn from others and build your contacts.
Write blogs: This will show your expertise in your field. If writing isn’t your thing, you can focus on video, but make sure you write good headlines and captions to go with the video content.
Run events: You can host an event with other business people, or teach a workshop related to what you know, aimed at people who fit into your ideal client profile.
Be active on social media: In our world, it’s important to show you know what you’re doing on social media. It doesn’t have to be all the channels. Choose from LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook based on what best suites your business. It does matter that you are consistent, and pay attention to communicating well. Your images should be well designed with good typography, and your captions should be engaging and grammatically correct.
Practice public speaking: I specifically joined Toastmasters because of a horrible fear of public speaking. But, it’s the best personal development you can do, and it's affordable, too. Get comfortable with public speaking, and it will open up so many doors. It very often leads to new clients.
3. People might take advantage, although they may not mean to
It’s usually the case that clients know less than you about the work you do. They may think something is easy when it’s not. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard “I don’t want any bells and whistles” or “We want it to be very simple." I’m sure these phrases are familiar to you, too. They may assume something is included in your agreement, but in your mind, it’s not. It’s super important when you review the scope of a project to confirm in person and in writing what’s included and costs for what’s extra.
4. Silence doesn’t mean the end
If a potential client is "ignoring you" and you’re frustrated about this, there are a number of factors to consider. Ask yourself, "What stage of the relationship are we in?"
Are you waiting for your clients to agree to go ahead with the project? They may not be entirely convinced you’re the best fit, they might have someone else vying for the same sale, or they could be nervous about the investment. It’s really about whether they feel you can meet their expectations under time and budgetary restrictions.
Here's a solution: Ask them if you can jump on a call so you can understand their hesitations and find out whether you are right for each other. This takes away any pressure that they should know exactly what they want and gives them the permission to walk away. It’s hopefully going to result in you showing them that you're willing to hear their concerns and provide suggestions to reassure them. It may also result in a mutual agreement that there truly won’t be a way for you to adapt to their expectations.
5. Clients need to cooperate
When you begin a working relationship with someone, it’s a fresh and exciting time. Usually both sides feel excited to start and expect amazing results.
All this sounds great, right? But even if you know full well you have the capabilities to deliver great results for them, you're going to need their input. To be successful, they need to cooperate by answering your well-prepared briefing questions and giving you examples of what they like, what they don’t like and why. They need to provide you with the facts about their business and give you honest feedback and cooperation.
In our experience, the No. 1 reason projects are delayed is due to clients putting them on the backburner, and weeks go by without us getting information we need. Most of the time, with gentle reminders, we get there – but this is something you should be aware of. Over time, we have put in numerous caveats in our proposals to help prevent this and speed up the project. We have learned to be a little bit stricter and suggest deadlines for when we need things. At the same time, we don’t want our clients to feel stressed or “railroaded,” so planning meetings and calls – even just short ones – usually works best.
6. You may not get paid
In every year of operating my business, there always seem to be one or two clients who just don’t pay us. It’s frustrating and hard to tell when you begin a working relationship with someone whether this will happen.
Always get paid a deposit before you start work. This should cover at least the first stage of your project, and the next installment should be sent in a timely manner. Keep a close eye on how quickly this client pays, so you can spot warning signs early on.
In addition, address payment in your terms and conditions. Ask a legal expert to check your terms and conditions for you.
Implement rules in your process for managing projects:
Make it clear to your clients early on that if you see payments not met within a certain time scale, after your polite reminders, you will need to archive the project and re-quote if you they want to revive it.
The fact that they agree to your quote and paid your deposit is a legal indication that they want you to work on this project.
If the client isn’t paying because they are unhappy with your service, they need to be honest about this. If they haven’t voiced their discontent clearly, giving you a chance to rectify things, then you are within your right to ask for payment for work you have done.
I am sincerely hopeful that none of these client acquisition truths have spoiled the idea of sharing your talents with deserving clients. Your specific area of expertise requires certain skills, and handling clients is yet another skill, but it’s never a bad idea to practice sales, negotiation, speaking and communication skills in life – these will ultimately make you a far better businessperson.