Terryn Barill is an IT consultant in Princeton, NJ.
I've spent the past year as a consultant after 20 years in the telecom industry. The technical aspects of the business are easy; it’s the marketing of services that's my biggest challenge. I've tried ads in the local business journal ($3,500), direct mail to dozens of companies, trade/job fairs, pro bono work—all for nothing. The only work I've been able to generate came from another consulting firm that knew me before I struck out on my own. I know there's no magic answer, but what marketing scheme would be best for me to concentrate on?
As good as you may be on the technical side, to be a successful consultant, you're going to have to learn the business side of the industry. Marketing and sales are key components of any successful business, but marketing services isn't like marketing products.
To my knowledge, no one ever hired a consulting firm because they saw an ad or received direct mail. Consultants usually get work through three channels:
- Existing relationships
- Demonstrating competence and experience
Basically, it boils down to visibility and credibility. Do your potential clients even know you exist? If they found you, how would you demonstrate competence?
According to C.J. Hayden, author of Get Clients Now, marketing strategies for services should be focused on the following activities (in descending order of effectiveness):
- Direct contact and follow-up
- Networking and referral building
- Public speaking
- Writing and publicity
- Promotional events
As you can see, much of your effort has been focused on the least effective strategies. Your current work came from direct contacts, but you put money into advertising and participated in trade/job fairs, which are essentially promotional events. You need to get visible and do it quickly.
Call on your contacts
Make a list of everyone with whom you have a good working relationship and who is either a decision-maker or has access to decision-makers. This list should include people from companies and vendors you have worked with in the past, other consulting firms, and suppliers.
Make a point of contacting them, preferably in person or by phone. Tell them what you're doing and provide some insight about how you may be of service. Follow up on your initial contact within two weeks. Some people are good at calling people on a regular basis, but I stink at it. (I'd rather chew off my own arm than make a cold call.) I often send items of interest to people with a quick note to touch base, keep contact, and let them know I'm thinking of them.
Networking isn't working a room and pressing your business card into everyone's hand. Networking is about creating a wide range of contacts that may lead to future work, referrals, resources, ideas, and information.
Hayden suggests building your network through a variety of techniques. The most common is attending meetings and seminars. You get to meet people, and you build in follow-up actions by joining a group.
I've always been successful in building business by partnering with other organizations. In my world, interesting contracts tend to be interesting contracts, and I don't care whether I'm a subconsultant or a primary consultant.
Depending on the area in which you live, agencies can also be very effective partners. As I'm sure you know, many large corporations have begun to require small vendors and independent consultants to go through their preferred vendors. It's a good deal for them (fewer contracts to administer, fewer vendors to manage) and for their preferred vendors (they make money off of you without doing anything but billing the client). But you need to find an agency that has access to the companies you wish to do business with and has someone you can build a relationship with.
I strongly suggest you manage the relationship as you would any other partnership; otherwise, you run the risk of being just another resume in their file. Partnering with other companies can also provide opportunities to collaborate on projects or to do a joint proposal.
A word of caution: Try to stay away from "rent-a-duck" agencies. You know the ones—they'll throw any warm body into a position just to say they filled it, and they tend to focus on the low end of the business. You want to build an ongoing relationship with both the agency and the end client. If your services are too far off from what the agency usually provides, not only will they not know how to sell you, but the client won't trust their word that you're capable of providing the service.
Direct contact and networking will be your primary focus for gaining visibility and getting work, but what about credibility? First and foremost, doing good work will give you credibility. Word of mouth is powerful, and people will talk more about a bad experience than a good one. But how do you demonstrate credibility and experience to people who have never heard of you? That's where speaking and writing come in.
Public speaking and writing (or being interviewed) make you visible to a wider audience and provide an opportunity for you to talk about your experiences and what you and your company can really do for a potential client.
Being on a panel at a trade show, speaking at a group meeting, making presentations, or giving workshops are all good speaking opportunities. Hayden suggests looking for an organized group to speak to rather than inviting your own audience (which would be a promotional event more than a speaking engagement).
Start at the community level
Depending on your specialty, seminars and workshops can be very effective—and profitable. Don't scoff at your local Rotary, Elks, or Lions clubs: A lot of those organizations are populated by small- to midsize-business owners. I once did a presentation at a Rotary club in a midsize suburban town, mostly to work out the kinks in a particular presentation and get live feedback. The mayor of this town was in the audience and liked what I had to say. One quick proposal later, and I did a small project for them. Three months later, I received an invitation to bid on a similar project for the city of Los Angeles. Turns out, one of the people on the proposal board for this city agency was the mayor’s brother-in-law. You never know what will happen.
If you want to do some writing, you can publish a newsletter or write articles. The professional organizations I belong to all have monthly magazines, and they usually include a call for articles. If you don't see one in a publication you're interested in writing for, call or write one of the editors and ask for their submission requirements and how to access their editorial calendar, the theme or list of subjects that future issues will cover. The calendars usually go out about three months.
You can also send a press release to your local paper. Provided your local paper isn't The New York Times, it might ask a reporter to call you for a profile article or as a resource for an article it's working on. Many people swear by PR firms to keep their names in the paper. Please remember that good PR firms cost good money, and publicity should be a piece of your marketing strategy, not the foundation of it.
What doesn't work
As noted, the least effective marketing strategies for a service business are promotional events and advertising. While participating in a trade show or other event can put you in front of an audience you couldn't afford to reach alone, it's extremely expensive with no guarantee of return. Speaking or presenting at a trade show allows you to reach the same audience and focuses on the portion of the audience that is actually interested in what you have to say. It's also a better approach than renting a booth and handing out hundreds of glossy brochures. How many times have you followed up on a brochure you received at a trade show? And of those follow-ups, how many turned into actual purchases of goods or services? Not many, I'd wager.
The only advertising I suggest for a new or small company is business or professional directories, and even then only if they're considered required sources for your industry. Many times, just being a member of a professional organization will give you a listing in its directory. Take a look at its Web site and see if it also offers online listings.
You should be using your Web site as a tool to provide marketing and contact information to potential clients. Many times, the decision to contact you is made on the basis of your Web site. You should have your own domain name, not www.heavenlyangel.com/techboy. The look and feel of your Web site should match your other business communication tools, such as business cards, stationery, and marketing brochures.
The key elements of a successful business are patience, persistence, and a blind faith that eventually someone somewhere will say those magic words: "Can you start on Monday?"
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