It’s been a common refrain the past few months as I’ve done catch-up calls with my service provider friends.
No matter if they’re running 7 figure agencies or working on their own as freelance project managers I’m hearing the same story.
It’s getting harder to get work. Inquiries are far and few between. Proposals are lagging. Estimates aren’t getting approved. People are letting good people go.
And almost everyone fits into one of these scenarios:
- Feast or famine mode. Maybe you’ve been totally booked (and overwhelmed with work) for months and haven’t done outreach or marketing in ages. But now all of your projects are ending and you’re in panic mode because you don’t have any future work scheduled.
- No leads or inquiries. Maybe you’ve just started your business – or you’ve been recently let go from agency or corporate work. You’re not getting any inquiries and you’re just waiting for someone to contact you.
- You’ve lost your primary client. Recently an old work colleague reached out to me – after several years of super high profitability doing niche-specific work, his core client suddenly stopped getting new projects. As a result, so did he. After years of not connecting with others, now he was trying to re-engage with his network to get new work – and the very specific skills he had cultivated for that client didn’t translate to a mass audience. I’ve seen more than one business go under because they relied on working with only one major client. When business is good, it’s great – but if that client suffers, so do you.
- You’re getting inquiries but not closing any deals. Maybe you’re responding to endless RFP’s or you’ve got estimates out there, but people are taking forever to say yes (or they’re cutting back on what and where they want to spend).
The very worst thing you can do is just sit around and wait. You have to be proactive.
Most service providers don’t need hundreds of clients – they need just a few a year to run a solid business. It’s not so much a big numbers game as it is getting in front of just the right people who need your service.
Here are some ideas to get the flow moving again – so you can generate leads and convert them into paying clients.
- Work (and build) your network
- Stay connected to your clients and prospects
- Be more visible
- Keeping your current clients happy
- What if you don’t need work right now?
Work (and build) your network
One of the best ways to generate new business is to work your network for referrals. Referrals can come from former clients, co-workers, friends, family – even strangers that overhear what you do (a source of a lot of work in my early days!)
- Set up catch-up calls with others in the field. I make time at least every other week to catch up with others in the industry – from past team members to friends I’ve made at conferences to people I connect with on social media. When you know what’s going on with each other (and what they’re working on now), it’s easier to recommend others for work (and get recommended). Keep these calls short-ish (under an hour – 20-30 minutes is ideal so they’re easy to fit into anyone’s schedule). These catch-up sessions can be super powerful – and they can be a great way to remind others of your industry knowledge.
- Revisit old referral sources. Look back over the past few years – who were your biggest referral sources? Is there a reason they aren’t referring more people to you? Reach out to them via phone or email – see how they are doing. Remind them how much you appreciate their support and that you loved working with their referrals.
- Tell people you’re available. Really, sometimes it’s this simple. Let people know you’re hireable! (especially if you’re in an in-demand profession like web design, development or online business management or project management – it’s so hard to find reliable people in this space who have availability!)
If you’re in any specialized groups (maybe you were in a mastermind or you’re in a professional group), put up a post and let them know exactly what type of work you’re looking to do. No one’s going to judge you – we’ve all been there!
- Ask your friends to do you a solid. Got a friend who’s got a newsletter list of potential prospects? Ask them to add a note in their p.s. linking to you. A vetted recommendation goes a long way. Remember – every email address is a real person who could use your help!
- Make it easy for people to share your info. Write a sentence (or two or three at the most) about what you do and who you do it for. Be succinct and don’t forget to include the best way to get a hold of you (email, website, social etc.). Don’t make others have to write it or think about it. Send the copy in an email so people can easily copy + paste and share it with others. If you’re active on social media, consider making a feed graphic and pinning it so it’s easy to reference and share.
- Use social media to stay connected. I personally am not great about posting to my feed – but I use instagram to stay in touch with fellow service providers (and clients) by sharing cool finds and commenting on their stories.Yes, I actually want to see all their pet pics. But more than that, regularly interacting with them in the DMs keeps me top of mind (and reminds both of us of what we offer!)
- Using social media to find clients. You’ll hear a lot of folks advise spamming online forums to source new clients. But here’s what often happens – a bunch of desperate posts advertising how cheaply they can do the project. It’s like sharks circling their prey. Why would you ever want to compete on being the lowest priced provider?
I think groups can be a fantastic place to share your knowledge and create relationships. When you get known as the go-to person for something, THAT makes you a valuable resource – and you’re more likely to pick up quality work. And it’s super important that you’re in the right spaces. Is the group full of a lot of promo ads and kvetching about clients? Really think if that group is serving you or just taking up space in your feed.
- Stay connected via Voxer. Sometimes a 1 minute Voxer to a friend can help you answer a quick question, share ideas and stay connected (especially if they’re across the world in a totally different time zone). And it doesn’t clutter up their inbox. I’ll also send a quick Vox to check in to see if it’s ok to connect a potential client via email. I don’t like to connect folks without permission from both sides.
- Don’t burn your bridges. We’ve all had tough clients or personnel situations. But try to refrain from talking negatively about it on social media. Other people ARE watching and take notice. I’ll never recommend someone who scolds a client publicly. Not every project (or relationship) works out. But be a pro and keep the venting private (or take it to your Voxer friends). And don’t burn the people who recommend you! I’ve had a few issues with folks who didn’t deliver what they promised and it made me look bad – and I vowed to never recommend them again.
- Share your network! I keep a digital list that serves as my personal rolodex of service specialists. This makes it easy so I can easily recommend others for work. I’m constantly updating this file with what the person is currently offering so I don’t inadvertently send them a bad client fit.
- Collaboration over competition. Many of my best projects and clients have come from other designers. We can’t do every project – build a list of other experts in your field and stay connected. You’ll rely on this network for advice, referrals and sanity checks! And you may just find they end up hiring YOU to help them on their projects.
I can tell you many stories of solopreneurs and employees who wish they would have nurtured their network before they needed it. But they were overwhelmed with the day to day running of their business. Block off time in your calendar to build (and nurture) your network.
If you want a smart way to build (and sustain) your network, check out my friend Michelle Warner’s on-demand course Networking that Pays. This is the introvert-friendly, always awkward-free connection system built for business owners who know that real relationships > transactions.
Heads up – I’m an affiliate for Networking that Pays. I will earn a referral fee if you purchase the course through my link. I only recommend those services that I actually use in my own business.
Stay connected to your clients and prospects
- Write a regular newsletter. One of the best reasons to write a regular newsletter is that you can highlight the work you’re currently doing. (Not on my list? Grab my weekly missive “The Nugget” here.) Many of my current clients read my words every week. Having a regular communication tool allows me to showcase my projects and insights (and often leads my clients to wanting to do more work with me). I’ve also had many folks tell me they’ve read my newsletter for years before reaching out to work with me.
- Reach out to current clients. The last few weeks I’ve been doing strategy and planning calls with my long term clients to plan for the upcoming year. This is smart on both of our parts – I know what my cash flow (and project load) looks like for the better part of the year (and I can identify any opportunity gaps) – and my clients know that I’m invested in seeing their businesses thrive (and that they can rely on me being there). I can’t tell you how many people comment on me being proactive – it makes a difference when you reach out first – don’t wait for them to contact you!
- Reach out to past clients. If you’ve been in business more than a couple of years, it’s likely that some of your first clients could use your help again. Check in with your previous clients to see how their business is doing – and if they could use your services. You might be surprised how many of them are looking to do new projects and have been meaning to reach out to you! Caveat: If you didn’t love working with them the first time around, it’s probably not going to be better the next time – so skip contacting them!
- Reach out to old prospects. Did someone contact you a few months back but ultimately didn’t sign on with you? It doesn’t hurt to see if they’re still in the market for new work. Often the decision to hire can take months. Analysis paralysis sets in and no action is taken. While this isn’t my preferred go-to method, it doesn’t hurt to follow-up again if you had a good feeling about working with the potential client. Most sales happen in the follow-up!
Be more visible
Self-promotion isn’t evil. You can never have too many eyeballs on your business. You have to be visible for people to remember you. Start promoting yourself and your work on a regular basis. Get your voice heard BEFORE you need to. Become known as the go-to resource for what you do.
Become a featured expert
Teaching for other people’s programs has single-handedly changed my business. I consistently get quality referrals from targeted speaking engagements and programs where I’m featured as a trusted advisor. These referrals don’t end when the program ends. Once your name is out there as a vetted resource, people will flock to work with you.
But how do you get a gig as a featured expert?
Relationships are everything. Every speaking engagement and teaching position I’ve gotten in the last few years has directly come from previous relationships – everything from current and former clients to personal mentors and workshop participants. Don’t be afraid to ask clients if you can teach in their programs, masterminds and live events. Simply asking if I can speak has landed me many gigs (that almost always translate into new clients).
Build a list of “go-to” talk titles that you can teach in 30-60 minutes. You may not get paid for your appearance (this may vary based on your agreement), but you should get the opportunity to pitch your services to the group. At the very least, make sure people know where to find you, can join your list and know how to hire you.
Make yourself presentable
I have seen so many sites from people who say they are struggling to find clients – and their sites are a hot mess. It’s unclear what they offer, links and buttons don’t work, pages feel unfinished and nothing feels cohesive.
I often get asked for recommendations – and if I look at a site and it’s a mess, I’m not comfortable recommending them. The people who ask me for recommendations TRUST my word. I’ve gotten burned more than once when I recommended someone who just wasn’t up to par – and I don’t want my recommendations to reflect badly on my business.
Take the time to tighten up your site. Your site doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but your links should work and the images and content should accurately represent your work. If someone goes to your site, it should be clear what you do and who you help.
Keeping your current clients happy
Communication is everything.
Got a sticky situation? Stop doing everything through email or text. Tone can get easily misconstrued. Pick up the phone or set up a video call if there’s an issue. I recently saw someone lose a huge potential project…all because they didn’t pick up the phone to work through a contract miscommunication.
Are you saying no too much?
I’m a big believer in saying no to what doesn’t serve you or your business. But in some cases, you CAN say no too much. I’ve been behind the scenes of a lot of teams and projects (and I’ve seen a lot of team members come and go…)
You might be turning off your current customers if you hear things like:
“I didn’t want to bother you.”
“I know you’re busy all the time.”
“I thought you’d think this kind of work was beneath you.”
Are you making yourself TOO inaccessible?
I’ve heard from more than one consulting client that they stopped working with their designer because they heard “no” too often.
Consider what other services you can offer your core clients to maintain a sustainable income.
What if you don’t need work right now?
Setup a waitlist
Been super busy but want to plan for the future? Then you need to implement a wait list. When I was taking on new design clients, I would keep a waitlist of 3-6 months. I personally capped my wait list to that length of time because timelines and project scope would often change beyond that point. I’d set up the contract, send any prep tasks I needed the client to do and take a non-refundable deposit that assured their spot on my queue. Win for the client, win for my cash flow.