Everyone remembers their first client, right? The first time you looked into a prospective client’s eyes, and you could tell they were with you. You asked the right questions. Told them the right things. They were nodding and engaged. They liked what they heard. Maybe they looked a little relieved that someone got them and could finally help.
But, still, you weren’t certain. You knew you were close, but you had thought you’d get a contract before and it didn’t happen. So you were nervous.
But then it happened.
They said yes.
And after however much time you had been calling yourself a consultant, you felt legit. The real deal.
(And if you haven’t felt the excitement and relief of getting your first clients yet, keep reading…)
I remember my first client clearly. I had been frustrated by months of outreach with nothing to show for it except the jitters from too much caffeine.
My First Client
My first client was someone I had known for several years. She was the CEO of a trade association for the organizations in my niche. I first met her right after she started as the CEO. I was employed then and worked at a sometimes-friends-and-sometimes-competitor organization. She had uprooted her life on the West coast of the US to move to the East coast for this job. I decided to surprise her with a gift basket with goodies and take-out menus from stores in the neighborhood where she was going to be living in New York City. I did this simply because I also had replanted my life years before and knew how difficult that could be. It solidified our relationship.
We worked in different organizations for several years. I eventually became her organization’s funder. As a funder, I was fair and helpful. I was interested in what they were doing and invested in her success—not because I had to be but because I truly cared.
So when I became a consultant, she was an obvious choice to reach out to. We had history. We liked each other. She knew I knew her, her organization, and the organizations they served. She knew what I could do and where I shined. It should’ve been an easy slam dunk, right?
Well…it wasn’t. We had drinks, lunches, and tea dates. She talked about her job, her kids, and her dog. I talked about what I wanted to do as a consultant and what my passions were. She was fascinated to hear about me switching to a consultant and asked a lot of questions about it. We had a great time.
Here was this perfect prospect. Someone who knew me and my value and operated precisely within my niche. Someone who had problems I could solve. And she never asked me for help.
Why was nothing happening? It was because I did not create the right scenario for getting hired as a consultant. I didn't know how to talk about what I do for them. I didn’t know how to pivot the conversation when I heard an opening. I just plain didn't show up in the right way to be able to get business and, by doing so, get to help her and her members.
So the next time I was going to meet with her, I did something very different than what I had done previously. I changed my orientation. Before I spent too much time talking about myself. I had gone largely focused on, “Oh my gosh, I need to get a gig!”—not on her and her organization.
This time, I switched to caring more about her organization and what she was trying to do as a leader in a volatile market. I switched from having generic passions about what I wanted to accomplish to have a singular passion, which was to help them.
Back to School
I also did a lot of homework.
When I met with her before, I didn't think I needed to do it because I knew her, I knew her organization extremely well, and I knew who they served extremely well. I had some idea of what my value was to them. So I thought I didn't need to prepare.
This time I decided to prepare as if I didn’t know them at all. I did several things. I talked to other people who knew where their Board of Directors were worried about and wanted. I looked at things that were happening in the industry that are or could impact them. I looked at what her organization said publicly so that I could get a sense of the things that they cared enough about to make public and how they talked about it. That gave me a good foundation for understanding them and their context more thoroughly.
Then I considered what problems they might need to solve or things they would need to do to accomplish what they wanted to. I thought about different ways they could solve those problems and achieve those outcomes.
I created some probing questions I could ask her to tease out more information about not just what they needed but what they have a demand for—meaning what they needed that they were willing to pay for getting it.
Then, based on that preparation, I came up with several ideas for how I could use my knowledge, skills, and connections to help them. I identified examples I could give that would show that I know how to help them. I practiced saying all of that aloud so I wouldn’t babble or stumble when I was talking to her.
I also practiced how I would pivot the conversation toward talking about how I could help them. I didn’t want it to feel manipulative or icky. So I decided to just be myself, my curious, caring self. I practiced asking probing questions and then saying bridge questions that could enable me to talk about ways I could help them. For example, bridge questions I practiced were:
“What have you folks done so far to try to solve that?”
“What do you still want to improve?”
“What are the gaps that still need to be filled?”
“What do you think the most important priority is?”
What’s the risk of not getting ahead of this issue?
“Do you think it would help if you did X?”
So the next time we had a lunch date, I was ready in ways I had not been before. There was no winging it!
I gave her valuable intel about the industry, demonstrated knowledge about the context her organization is in, asked her questions to dig into what they most needed, gave her options for how they could get the outcomes they want, and articulated ways that I could help them.
It was a night-and-day difference.
She even smiled at one point and said, “Someone did their homework!”
By the end of that lunch, we had mapped out a scope for work and next steps.
We still talked about her kids and dog. We still had a genuinely good time. But I walked out ready and eager to help them, and she walked out relieved that I was going to help them get the outcomes they needed. That organization became one of my anchor clients for years. I am grateful that I was able to help them in so many ways.
It also helped me see what I needed to do to get clients. I’ve improved my approach over the years, but the basics are still the same ones I used to get my first client: orient toward the client, do the homework, practice pivoting, and show up ready to get business and help clients.