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Episode 32: How to Leverage Your Existing Network to Get Clients—with Deb Zahn

Hey, folks! I want to welcome you to Episode 32 of the Craft of Consulting podcast. I'm your host Deb Zahn, and today it's just going to be me. I'm actually not interviewing anyone because I wanted to talk about a particular strategy for getting clients that I've actually been sharing quite a bit with people recently. Particularly, it's relevant if you're just starting out, or you're thinking of being a consultant. This is one of the ways that you can actually get one of your first clients much faster than a lot of other strategies. And So I'm going to talk about that. But one thing to keep in mind, if you've already been doing consulting for a while, is this is also a strategy that you can adapt if you want to expand your number of clients, and if you have something new you're offering.

So some new ability or skill that you can offer to the market, you can also use this strategy for them. Now, before I get into the details of it I also want you to know that on my website, under the show notes, there'll be a button that you can click, that you can actually get templates that are all of the emails that I'm going to talk about during this podcast episode. I have templates for you there in a Word doc. You can cut and paste and put in your own information and you could actually enact this strategy today and get you closer to getting your first client. So what this is about is using email, which is still one of the most primary ways that people communicate, to leverage the existing network that you have.

Now, I call this a big net strategy, and what I mean by big net is that the large numbers help you, so it's a lot less effort than some of the other ways that you are going to do business development. You have a smaller hit rate, so depending on what your numbers are, your per person hit rate for actually getting a client is going to be smaller than some of the more intensive strategies. But that's OK because you have big numbers, that means that you're more likely to have one, two, three, maybe a number of people who are actually going to respond to you and potentially be clients for you, or people in your network who can get you to clients. Now, I contrast this with little net strategies, and little net strategies tend to be more effective on a per person percentage basis.

You're actually going to get more hits. You're going to get more yield out of this strategy. You're working with a lot smaller numbers because you tend to look for prospective clients that are much more closely aligned with what you can potentially offer them. But they take a whole lot more effort. So I never suggest ever, ever, ever that you put all your eggs in one basket. So you want to make sure that when you're doing business development you have a mix of these big net and these little net strategies. And there's a few medium-size nets that fall in between, and that's going to make it more likely that you're going to have a good robust pipeline of clients as you continue as a wildly successful consultant.

This is a little bit of a teaser actually, I'm going to be releasing an online course in early 2020 that is all about how to do business development for consultants, and it will help you get your business pipeline together more quickly than I see a lot of consultants. Particularly those that are first starting out and they've never had to do any of this before. So again, what this technique is, is this is about leveraging the network that you have today. And that's very different than trying to do cold networking, which is not a bad idea, but cold networking is a lot harder for you to get people to actually respond to you. And it often, again, takes a lot more effort. This is really about reaching out to people who already know you.

They already like you, and they have some desire to actually help you. And these could be people that you've actually worked with before, but it could also be people that are in your personal life. So don't discount grandma. Grandma could actually potentially help you get clients. But the three things that I want to say about this technique before I get into the details of it is the key is, is you want to make it low burden for the people that are in your network. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to help you. And before I go onto sort of the other key aspects of this technique, because I want to emphasize that, So I have people reach out to me all of the time who want me to help them get business, and I pretty much all of the time would love to help them get business.

The problem is, is they put a very high burden on me for helping them. So they expect me to take a number of steps in order for me to give them the help that they're asking for, and if my day looked differently, I would be perfectly happy to do that, but my days don't look like that. So what happens is I have to put it off because I don't have time to do it right then, which means I'm more likely to forget it because I can be quite forgetful. And I don't end up necessarily helping as many people as I want to just because the burden's too high for me. So as we go throughout this, I'm going to talk about some of the nitty gritty details of how you do that. But the second thing to keep in mind is, as I said, this is a big net strategy, So you want as much exposure as possible.

The more people that hear about you, the better. Then, coming back to the low burden part, you also want to make it really low burden for potential clients, and I'll talk about that in a moment. So let's get back to the make it low burden for the people in your network part. I want to dive into that in a little more detail because, as I said, I've had lots of folks reach out to me and they want to have lunch, or they want to have meetings, or they want to do calls, and then we have to schedule. And then, hopefully, my schedule works out and I don't have to reschedule, or I have to travel because now I have to get to lunch. And that's fine when you're using a little net strategy. And there's a reason that you've picked those particular people because they're more likely to yield clients much faster.

But reaching out to everybody you know and asking them to do that when it may not be an exact fit, that then is putting a lot of burden on the other side in order for them to be able to help you. So you want to keep this as big net as possible. You want to make sure that the folks that you're asking to help you, that you're doing all of the work for them, because it can be a lot of work. You don't want to just add things to their to-do lists and hope that they're able to actually get to it. So that's the main thing. How do you make it easy for people in your network? You do the work for them. So the only thing that they should have to do, if they decide that they're going to help you, is to easily be able to send an email to people in their network.

Because that's what you're really trying to do, is you're trying to get access to other people's network to potentially yield clients. They should be able to easily pull something up that you've sent them, put their name on the bottom and hit send, and if that's all they do, that's still going to be really helpful to them. That means that you're not going to ask them to write emails for you, and even if they think you're fabulous, it's a lot of work for them to do that. Now, if they want to take an email you wrote for them and adjust it and put something personal on it, that's fine, but again, that's lower burden than asking them to actually write the email, so you write it. Don't ask them to describe you. You need to describe you, and don't ask them to call someone.

Because unless you have a really good reason why them making phone calls is going to be really high yield for you and it's going to be worth asking them for it, that's a lot of work for people to actually do. You just want to ask them to send an email that will help you get access to their network in a really easy way, and they're more likely to do it. Now, again, as I said, you're trying to get access to their networks because you're trying to get as much exposure as possible. This is where the big numbers matter, because you only need a really small hit rate to get your first client. So let me go through a little bit of math for you just to illustrate what I mean. Let's say you ask 50 people in your network. These are the folks that know you, like you, and are willing to help you, and you asked them to send an email to their network.

So not everybody's going to do it, so we know that. And it doesn't mean they don't love us. It doesn't mean they don't respect us and they don't want to help us. It just means that for whatever reason, they didn't get to it, they didn't have time, whatever it is. So let's say 30% of them do it, so that's 15 people. Those are the folks that actually do it, and by the way, if you get that percentage, don't be upset. That's actually a really good number. Don't get mad at the other 70% that didn't do it. So let's say each of those 15 people, they send it to 20 people in their network. So you now have 300 people that you're getting exposure to, which is a really great number. And that's more than you could go out and have drinks, and lunches, and tea, and coffee, and all that good stuff with.

So even ignoring the people who may forward it to others, because I've done that before. I've gotten these types of networking emails and it wasn't a fit for me, but I thought of someone who it was, so I forward it to them. So you only need less than 1% of that to yield a client. So a tiny hit rate in order for you to be able to get a client. So that's why you ask everybody you know, you ask the folks in your Tai Chi class, you ask grandma, you ask folks that you used to work with, you ask folks that you know locally. You'd be really surprised how much connections people have, particularly to aspects of their life that you don't know anything about, because the world's a really small place. So you want to take advantage of that.

And it could be someone you haven't talked to in 10 years. Now, that lead may have gone a little cold, but if your last encounter with them was really positive and you know that you have good feelings for them and you have reason to believe that they have good feelings for you, then they make the list. Worst that can happen is they don't answer you, but the more people the better here. So you might ask yourself: should I ask if they're willing to send emails on my behalf first and then send them an email? I can see why that might make sense from an I-don't-want-to-immediately-just-ask-them-for-something standpoint, but I'm going to say no to that and let me tell you why. It’s because now you're asking them to do two things.

You're asking them to answer your first email, so you know that only a percentage are actually going to do that, but you've made them take a step. Now, if they say yes, you're going to make them take a second step, and that is to follow up on the second email. So every time you ask them to take a step, you're increasing the burden for them. You're decreasing the likelihood that they're actually going to do it. Even if they think you're wonderful and you're making it harder for them to do it. So the other thing is, let's say you're creating the email that you're going to ask them to send. You're making it easy for them. You're describing yourself, you're giving them information that is going to be useful to them to be able to send it. You also as you're creating that, you want to make it as low burden as possible for your potential clients.

So you need a decent percentage to send it out, but also whoever receives it, that could be a potential client for you. You want them to see easily how it can help them solve their problems and make their lives easier. And what I always suggest is your email should focus on the client and what matters to the client, not what you have to say about yourself. So that's kind of a Jedi trick that takes some effort to figure out how to do. But essentially, you want a client to read this and feel like, "Wow, I'm really at the center of the universe in terms of how they might actually potentially help me, and it's not just me reading essentially a pro's resume about who someone is." Now, that doesn't mean you shouldn't show off all of the wonderful things about you and what you did, but you want to do that in a way that the client's going to care about it.

So there's a couple tricks for doing that. So the first thing is, is you want to keep the email short. Very few people have enough time to read a very long memoir about who you are and what you've done, and remember, it's about them. So you want it to be pleasurable and easy for them to actually read. Now, I've gotten emails from other folks that are networking emails, and have included absolutely fantastic things that they've done… accomplishments out in the world. But if I printed them, they would be three to four pages long. So in my busy day, I'm probably not going to make it to a full page. I need to understand if this is useful to me when I get the first couple paragraphs, and if it isn't, I might think, oh that's nice, and then move about my day. So you want to keep it as short as possible.

They should not print it out and it takes several pages. I would actually make sure that it's less than a full page if it were printed. And you want to have in there three to five, really, no more than that, but three to five really succinct descriptions of what you can do for them. And the way that I think about this is that if a client were looking at that, they should be able to copy and paste it into a contract. That's the type of language that you want to use. So you can include, and I think this is a great idea, super brief examples of past work that you have done that are related to those things, particularly, if you actually achieved results. So if you increased the number of customers somebody had, if you decreased costs, whatever it is that you were able to do in your past life, include a brief description of what that is.

Particularly, the specific results that were associated with that. So by the way, don't just say, "I increased revenue." You want to be very specific and say, "I increased revenue by 12% over X period of time." So it's got to be something, again, a client's going to look at that and they're going to think, "Oh, I care about these things that this consultant does, and holy crap, they actually achieve the results that I want to achieve." And so they're more likely than to reach out to you because ultimately what they want to buy is the results. They don't just want to buy tasks that a particular consultant is going to do. So for example, I will give you one example of what I would put in a networking email like that.

So one of the main reasons that folks hire me is I'm a very skilled group facilitator. So I help people make decisions and I help groups make decisions, which can often be very difficult. So if I were in a live networking event, I say things like, "I cure decision-making disorders because I'm trying to be provocative and get them to answer and to ask me more questions." But in an email, I would say something like, "Skilled group facilitator, who can help organizations quickly develop focused growth and sustainability strategies, make critical decisions, and prioritize in sequence actions." And I picked those specific examples because that's often what people tell me they're struggling to do, which is why they want to bring a facilitator in. So I use language that I've actually heard clients use.

Then, I give an example because I want to show them that it's not just sort of kumbaya, we're having a nice facilitated meeting and then nothing comes out of it. So I give the example, "Facilitated the development of a three-year new strategic plan for a mid-size nonprofit organization and, here's the kicker, assisted in securing $10 million to implement one of those key strategies." And that's a true example that I give so they see, "Wow, it's not just a plan that's on a piece of paper and she helped facilitate it, but real results came out of that." So you want to emphasize that as much as possible. You want to grab their attention with the types of things that you know that your market struggles with, and you want that in your first bullet.

You want to make sure that since they're going to have all these competing demands for their attention, that they immediately see something that matters to them, and you want them to have an emotional response to it. So I think I've said this in other podcasts, but in case you haven't listened to them, I'm going to say it again, which is, most folks make decisions largely, not exclusively, but largely based on emotional responses. So they tend to hear things and they think how does this make me feel? Does this reduce my stress? Is this soothing? Does this make me happy? And that's often it. And that's in your limbic system, if you want to know the nerdy aspect of it, and then, the next piece is the frontal cortex, which is the rational mind, where they actually say OK.

And then, they have the details that actually back it up, "Well, that's a good decision." So you want them to feel, when they read your email, that you're going to make their lives better and you're going to make their day to day life less frustrating. And then, have a sub bullet that's a concrete, "I've actually done this. Here's the example." And they want to know that you've really done something. So again, I was fortunate I have a $10 million example. $10 million tends to get people's attention depending on the industry you're in, but most people have done strategic plans. Most people have been facilitated and they don't walk away with a really excited, wow response to that.

I know because they tell me over and over again that they walked in the room and then nothing happens. So I'm highlighting something that I know is going to get a big response, and it's going to get a big response emotionally as well as rationally. So you also in these emails, so those are the bullets that you put there, things that you know matter to your clients that describe what you can actually do with concrete examples of results that you have achieved. But you also want to make sure in the email that if clients want to find out more about you, that it's really easy. So you don't want them to have to click on an attachment to look at a bio of yours. You want them to easily be have it.

So you can provide them with a brief bio or examples of past work. But put that on some website, give a link that they can just click to. Now, it's OK in the email, after you have your bullets describing what you can do for them in a row, results that you've achieved that are related to those things, you can say a few things about yourself. I wouldn't give a lot of examples. I would keep it to, again, three seems right. I wouldn't go over five, but it's OK to put a little of that in the email. But again, if they print it out, it shouldn't be over a page, and I would say it should be no more than three quarters of a page. And again, no attachment, so put a link, so all they have to do is click on something and it's easy to get to.

And one of the reasons that this is such a good idea is, again, you're giving them an emotional experience of you by how easy you're making them understand how valuable you are and understand more information about you if they want it. So they're going to think, "Wow, this person really thought this through. They're making it super easy for me. They're all value in there, no fuss." It makes you look more polished, more professional, and you want to make sure it matches the feel of your field. So they're like, "Wow, this person is a great fit." You want to give them an experience of that by how you are doing this type of outreach in constructing this type of email. So a couple of things I would say is you want to have a link that's on there, so they can easily get to the information that you've decided is useful to show someone about you.

I wouldn't make it exhaustive but if, for example, there's some concrete examples that you can give them, or images you can show them, do that, but you don't want them to have to sift through a library of your fabulousness. You actually want to curate it, if I dare use that term, to curate it so that it's most useful for who you know is in your field. Before you send them anywhere though, before you send any of these emails to your network, make sure that you actually do a search on the internet for yourself. You want to make sure that there's nothing weird out there, because I've gotten some of these, and I know other people have told me the same thing, is they'll look at your stuff, but they'll also look at LinkedIn. I've had people look at Facebook, and so I've walked into prospective client meetings and they know I have chickens.

Well, that wasn't in anything I gave them, and I'm proud by the way of the fact that I have chickens, but they know that. So you want to make sure that anything that's out there in the world, particularly anything that's on social media, makes you look good, and it doesn't make anybody pause and say, "What the heck is that about?" And I know of a concrete example of someone that I did an internet search for and on his Facebook it showed him getting very, very drunk, and I thought you've got to be kidding me that you didn't know how to get rid of that picture.  So what it told me is, I don't even care if he has a drinking problem, what it told me is you have poor judgment. And I don't want anybody actually working with me that has that type of a poor judgment.

Now, that doesn't mean that you aren't going to show that you're a human being and you have a life. Like I said, I'm perfectly fine if people know that I have chickens, and I love them, and I have a vegetable garden, and I have way too many cats, like I don't care about that. That's OK, but there's no pictures out there that should make someone who doesn't know me or let alone someone knows me, cringe when they see it. So clean that all up. Now, a few other things I'll say. So you're going to construct this email for people in your network. So the question is, when you send it to people in your network, do you personalize the emails? Because what you could do is just put everybody in the BCC box and just send it out and everything's impersonal. I would say this if that's all you have time for, go ahead and do it. But if you have a little time, you might pick out those people who you think are closer to potential clients for you and then, you might personalize those emails. That increases the likelihood that they're actually going to see it and it's not going to look like sort of an email blast that went out to everybody. So should you ask them to include you when they send their email, or ask them to do a direct introduction? So for this technique, I would say don't do either of that. There are many times when asking them to CC you or do an introduction is appropriate, but again that keeps the burden really high, and it keeps it sort of low pressure for people in your network and potential clients.

So I've had it where I've had people that I think are absolutely wonderful. I've gone out to dinner with them, but I don't know anything about their work. So it's harder for me to CC them on an email because I'm now pressuring people in my network to get back to them. And I can't really vouch for what they do in a work environment, and it makes it a little bit awkward if I'm going to do that with people in my network. Now, should you remind people to send your email out? Absolutely. I love it when people remind me to do things. Now, I don't want them stalking me. I don't want tons of pressure, but I really appreciate it because anybody who knows me knows that I can be very forgetful. As I think I've said before, I had a secretary that used to call me etch a sketch because things would just leave my mind.

So I love it when I get a friendly reminder. I want it super brief, super friendly, few days after the first email. Include the original email content in the reminder, so again, this goes back to keeping it low burden. What I don't want is someone to remind me and then I need to go search my email to try and find it so that I can send it out. Again, that decreases the likelihood that anybody is actually going to follow up if you make them take extra steps. So wait a few days, send a brief email, if you haven't heard back from them that they've done it, it's OK to send another little reminder. Again, I have all of these emails with guidance and a template that you can download and you can use, but that's OK. It's OK to remind people a few times.

Sometimes, what I'll do if I haven't heard that anybody has sent something out, is I'll wait a few days after I get a reminder. Then I just don't ask them to do anything. I just send them a thank you, because maybe I don't know if they did it or not. Now, what I have found that happens is sometimes that's an extra little nudge and you might get a few more people who are actually going to send out the email just because they saw the thank you email, but then leave them alone. You want to keep your people in your network feeling good about you. So you don't want them to feel like they're getting tremendously pressured. So what do you do if a potential client reaches out to you? So that's the goal, right? So hopefully you are going to get connected with a few prospective clients.

If you get any kind of a nibble, that's when you're going to start to research and find out about them. And I'm going to have a lot of information about that that's going to be in my course. But in the meantime, if you listened to Episode 11 with Meg Schilkie, there's a lot of great advice in there about how to prepare for actually interacting with a client. But the main thing here is, you want to respond the day that you get connected with them during regular business hours. So I've seen way too many times new consultants, for whatever reason, they wait several days, sometimes over a week to respond. But, again, you're giving perspective clients an experience of what it will be like to work with you, and you want to show them that one of the things you are is tremendously responsive.

You want to show them that you're eager to help them. So if you're going to meet or talk with them and they ask for a proposal, you also want to get it to them quickly. So anytime you can show them that you're very responsible, that is fantastic. The other thing that you want to do, if this ends up in a contract, remember, this came to you because of someone in your network. So you definitely want to get back and thank them that they helped you. But you also want to make sure that you do an absolutely phenomenal job with that client. One, it's more likely to get you repeat business, it's more likely to turn that client into a raving fan that tells others about you. But you've also borrowed the credibility of the people in your network who the folks sent those emails for you. And you want to honor that and you want to make sure that whoever they connected you with, if it ends up in an engagement, that they get the best possible value out of you. So those are the big net technique that can help you reach a whole lot of people. And remember, you need a very small hit rate for this to work by leveraging the existing network you had. And, again, I'm going to tell you, send it to grandma, trust me, send it to family members. You never know. The world is really, really small and you'd be amazed at some of the networks that people have that you've even known for a long time, and you'd have no idea that they had those connections. So hopefully this was really helpful. As I said, I have email templates. All you have to do is click, give me your email and we'll send them to you, or you can download them and get them, and immediately start using them to reach out to your network.

And I will tell you more about my course, as it gets closer and closer to launching, but I think it's going to be a lot of fun. It's an online course with tons of tools, so you can take a lot of shortcuts for how you're doing your business development and not have to figure it all out yourself, which is really the goal of what I'm trying to do. So thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. I'll be back next week with another interview with an absolutely fantastic guest. So thanks so much. I'll talk with you next time.

Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode, or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything.

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