Build it and they will come. That’s what you thought when you set out on your own and started your own IT consulting shop, right?

If you’ve found that prospects aren’t exactly beating down your door, or if you’d like to expand your customer base, there are several ways you can generate more business. And you’ll be happy to know there are marketing initiatives that don’t require significant capital investment.

I heard…
Word-of-mouth advertising is one of the most effective tools available, and it’s free. Many of the successful IT consultants I’ve talked to said word-of-mouth referrals provided them with as many projects as they can handle.

Sounds great! Where do I sign up?
One reason word-of-mouth advertising is so effective is that you can’t buy it. Instead, it’s earned. Also, it often comes in the form of a referral from a trusted source. In fact, according to the publisher Americas Group , word-of-mouth advertising is the most effective, least expensive marketing tool available.

When you, as an IT consultant, solve a nagging problem for a customer, save a client during a crisis, or fix a system in the middle of the night, those actions are remembered. Inevitably, such customers will be at lunch or a social gathering with a colleague, talking shop, and your name will come up. The customer will mention the experience they had with you and your firm, either in recapping his own week or when answering the common question, “I’m having trouble with my network. You know anybody I could call?”

You shouldn’t be surprised when the colleague calls you. Think about that the next time your pager rings at three in the morning and you’re tempted to roll over and go back to sleep.

The point? If you do your job, and if you do it well, folks will let others know.

Assuming your IT shop has talented employees that provide value and expertise, word-of-mouth advertising should take care of itself. Other methods also can help you secure new customers.

Steady as she goes
Even if you have expert employees, offer competitive fees, and possess a firm understanding of your business, you must still develop marketing relationships with others to be successful. According to , experienced consultants “know they must have a steady marketing program to ensure continuous business volume.” lists several excellent resources available to IT consultants.
Here are some methods available to promote and build your consultancy:

  • Sponsor local association meetings.
  • Generate low-cost mailings.
  • Barter for promotional services.
  • Participate in trade shows.
  • Provide pro bono services.
  • Seek RFPs.

Sponsor local association meetings
You can build your business by finding local association meetings to sponsor. But be careful to go where your customers are. This means you don’t want to sponsor a meeting of the local computer users group. Instead, look for meetings and seminars held by local associations representing accountants, physicians, attorneys, financial consultants, bankers, retailers, restaurants, and government agencies. Be sure to distribute professionally prepared marketing materials at these meetings, and try to secure just a moment or two to promote your organization.

Generate low-cost mailings
While the return rate on mass mailings is low, such efforts can be useful in building name awareness and visibility within a community. As long as you don’t expect the world from a mailing, and you understand its purpose, you’ll be a happy consultant.

You won’t receive tons of new customers from a mass mailing. But the mailings will generate a few telephone calls, for which you should be prepared. Of course, I don’t need to teach you the value of always answering your telephone quickly and professionally, do I?
If you’re thinking about distributing a mass mailing to promote your firm, consider offering a certificate for a free, no-obligation discovery meeting. By offering to travel to a client’s office to discuss his or her needs and briefly examine the client’s network free of charge, you’re demonstrating your willingness to work with the customer. Such meetings also provide the client with an opportunity to see how well your companies will work together.
Barter for promotional services
Don’t underestimate the power of public relations. Then again, don’t overestimate the value of public relations, either. Before you invest heavily in an integrated advertising and public relations effort, make sure you’ve made the appropriate hardware, software, and salary commitments with your organization’s funds.

One opportunity to consider is trading out IT consulting services to a public relations or advertising agency. You’ll find that most marketing shops specialize—surprise—in marketing. Yet they also need servers, software applications, network file storage and printing, and more. You’d be surprised how easily you might be able to swing an integrated marketing campaign for just three or four hours of your time per week.

Marketing firms can also help you develop a pitchbook, or site seller, that lists your company’s strengths and can be given to prospective clients. Often, these tools include press clippings, announcements of awards your organization has received, the resumes of its employees, certifications earned, and more.

Participate in trade shows
Trade shows can be a great source of leads or a lousy waste of your time. It all depends upon the show and how you market yourself. Don’t expect to generate a lot of new customers at a technology trade fair. Instead, go to other organizations’ trade shows. I believe that you’ll find more companies in need of your services at a trade show for accountants, attorneys, government agencies, etc., than at the typical IT trade show, where traditionally IT folks constitute the majority of attendees.

When you commit to trade show participation, maximize your effort. Be sure to have a clean booth sporting sharp promotional materials and attentive staff. Always dress the part and behave professionally. The chances someone will stop at your booth and ask questions about your company are slim if your employees are reading the newspaper, surfing the Internet, or talking sports with the folks from the booth next door.

Provide pro bono services
Give it away. If you’re seeking to expand your business base, find a few worthy organizations within your community and provide them with IT services. The organization could be your local Red Cross, Boys and Girls Club, or United Way agency. The fact is, nonprofit organizations rarely turn down volunteer assistance, and they’re likely to talk you up to other businesses within the community.

Seek RFPs
Sometimes the answers are right in front of us. When was the last time you checked the weekly business press or daily newspaper for Requests For Proposals? Government agencies and other institutions often place public requests for price quotes in newspapers and online. Make a concerted effort to search for and respond to those RFPs your company could readily execute. Having a smaller organization can help you meet an RFP’s needs more quickly and at a lesser price than larger, more entrenched organizations. Don’t be afraid, either, to include your company’s pitchbook when responding to an RFP.
Let us know if you’ve found other tools that have helped you successfully market your IT consulting group. E-mail TechRepublic your tips . We’ll be sure to stay on top of your suggestions and follow up with other methods you can use to develop your IT consulting firm.