No matter how good your relationship with your clients, eventually one or more of them will become inactive. It's a fact of business, and it may or may not have anything to do with your quality of service. Projects get completed or deep-sixed, business directions change, people in charge get moved around or let go — and suddenly you find one source of your income gone. How do you go about finding new business to replace it?
- Business contacts. I've found most of my business this way over the years. Make sure that everyone you know in the industry knows that you're looking for work and that you'd appreciate any opportunities or referrals that they might send your way. You can even offer a finder's fee. You're just now coming up on an opportunity for making these kinds of contacts: the holiday season. On many years I've sent out holiday cards to everyone I ever did business with, wishing them "Happy Holidays" while at the same time letting them know that I'd love to work with them again if they ever need my assistance. You have to be careful about your cards and greetings, though. Don't send a Christmas-themed card unless you know that the recipient will appreciate that observance — just stick to "Happy Holidays" instead. I've had several occasions where a former client not only appreciated being remembered, but also thought of some project they could hand off to me.
- Your web site. When someone Googles "consultant" in combination with your specialty, you want to make sure that you're on the first page of results. I've currently got three entries on the first page for my specialty. It's easiest to maintain that position if your site is a blog that gets updated regularly. I could write a whole post (many, many posts) on how to optimize your web site for search engines, but I'll leave that to those who specialize in that topic. Once they find your site, make sure that the content talks to your strong points in plain terms. Blogs are particularly good for this, because when you post often you end up talking about the subject rather than about how much you know about the subject.
- Social networks. It always amazes me how much time so many people can spend at Facebook, LinkedIn, MyBlogLog, BlogCatalog, Reddit, Digg, or any number of other social networking sites. But they do, and having a presence there can help to get you noticed. Oops, I almost forgot to mention TechRepublic — at least you're not wasting your time here... right? In fact, talking about your specialty on TR forums should be an ideal way to find people who are looking for help in those specific areas.
- Referral services. Online services like guru.com offer to hook you up with available work for a fee. They'll even process payments and tax forms. I've personally never gotten any business through services like that — but then I haven't worked them that hard, either. Any readers care to comment on their experiences?
Notice I didn't include "mail out your resume." Because I run my own consulting business, I get a lot of letters and e-mail from people who want me to read their resume and hire them. If I'm feeling curious, I might look it over — but it's highly unlikely that I would contract someone with whom I have had no prior relationship, nor even a recommendation from someone I know. When a potential client is looking for a consultant, they want to feel comfortable that the prospect not only knows their specialty, but that they will be a good fit for working with their employees — and they aren't likely to invest a lot of time into every candidate to figure that out. You need to find a way for them to get to know and trust you within the course of their normal daily activities. If they keep running across examples of your brilliance on your blog or social networks, or if all the people they talk to say that you're top notch, then you've achieved a reputation that might just score you some business.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.