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  • Deb Zahn

How to Get Your First Clients Through Your Existing Network

Updated: May 17

How do you get your first clients?


Or how to you get new clients if you suddenly find yourself without clients?


Do you have to start from scratch and do a bunch of cold calls? Do you need to ask for business by sending messages into people’s LinkedIn inboxes? You know, the ones you hate getting.


As you grow your consulting business, there are many things you will have to do to get consulting clients (including reaching out to people you don't know). But some strategies are generally better than others, especially when you first start out.


So, what do you do?


One of the most powerful techniques is to tap into something you already have: your network.


Activate Your Network

Ask your network to help connect you with people in their networks. This approach of activating connections that are already “warm” will likely have a better and faster yield than starting with cold calling or messaging.


Why? Because you are asking people who know you to help you connect with people who know them, which means they are more likely to respond.


When you are first starting out, think of your network broadly. Yes, it is definitely people you know from your former job, but it is also everyone who knows you, likes you, and is willing to help you. Yes, that includes grandma! (But more about grandma in a minute…)


How to Get People to Help You

There are three keys to the techniques detailed in this blog:

  1. Make it low burden for the people in your network

  2. Get as much exposure as possible—the more people who hear about you, the better!

  3. Make it low burden for potential clients

Make it Low Burden for People in Your Network

Throughout my career, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me for help getting clients. It’s either new consultants or people I’ve encountered out in the world who want to try consulting and (wisely) decided to reach out to someone they know who has been successful at it. One of the main things they want is for me to introduce them to people who may hire them.


The other version of this is that I get asked to meet with or have calls with people who are networking. Usually, it goes like this: A friend or colleague sends me an email telling me about a person who is great and looking to expand their network. Sometimes they say why they are networking; most times they don't. They just say that this person is someone who they think I should meet, and they attach the person’s resume.


Here’s the thing: I like helping people, especially folks who I think can add value to people in my network. But...



The problem with these approaches is that, even if this person is someone who I’d like to help (and they usually are), taking the next steps of writing and sending an email to my network or responding and setting up a time to meet or talk, then doing that, and then doing whatever the follow up is, is A LOT of work.


It often feels like a new project just got added to my to-do list. And my to-do list usually doesn’t have a slot open. The truth is, I don’t always (or often) connect with the people sent to me. Not because I don’t want to help, but I am busy and it’s a burden.


So how can you make it easy for the people in your network? Simple: do the work for them.


The only thing they should have to do is decide who they are sending an email to, put their name at the bottom, and hit send. Done! Easy!


Don’t make them write emails. You write the email. Don’t ask them to describe you. You describe you. Don’t ask them to call someone. Just ask them to send an email.


If you make it easy for people to give you access to their networks, they are more likely to do it. And that is important because you need to…


Get as Much Exposure as Possible

The technique of leveraging your network to get access to new people is a numbers game. Big numbers matter because it means you need a small hit rate to get a client. Let’s do the math!

  • You ask 50 of the people in your network who know you, like you, and are willing to help you to send an email to their network.

  • Let’s say 30% (15 people) actually do that. (That’s a pretty good percentage so don’t get mad at the other 70%!)

  • Each of those 15 people sends it to the 10 people in their networks. That’s 150 people!

  • Even ignoring the people who may forward it to others, you only need less than 1% to get your first client!

That’s why you ask grandma and anyone else who knows you, likes you, and is willing to help you to send it to their networks. You are after big numbers.


Now, not all people in the network are the same. There may not be anyone in grandma’s Tai Chi class that has anything to do with your field or area of expertise. But the world is a small place, so you never know!


Just make sure that you ask as many people as possible who you think have connections that align with what you offer as a consultant. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone who you haven’t talked to in 10 years. If your encounters with them were positive, they make the list. Just remember: the more people, the better!


If people in your network want to add any personal details to the email they send, that’s great. The more personal, the better, but don’t write the email in such a way that they have to edit it. Again, the goal is to make it easy for people to send it out.


Should you ask people if they are willing to send emails on my behalf first and then send them the email they can use? I’d say no. Why? Because you are now asking them to do 2 things: 1) answer your first email and 2) follow up on your second email.


The more steps you ask someone to take, the less likely they are to do it. Even if they like you.


Make it Low Burden for Potential Clients

So let's say that your network is activated, and a decent percentage of people are going to send the email to people in their networks. Yay you!


Now, how do you make it easy for a potential client to say yes?


The keys to make it easy for them to:

  • See what you can do to solve their problems and achieve their aspirations

  • Schedule a meeting with you!

It's About Them, Not You

Here’s the consulting Jedi skill that could mean the difference between getting a client and not getting a client: the email you want someone to send to a potential client should focus on what you want the potential client to do, not what you want to say about yourself.


The potential client reading it should feel like they and their needs are the center of the universe, not you. That does not mean you should not be showing off your fabulousness. But the fabulousness that the potential client will care about is the fabulous things you can do for them. So how do you do that?


First, keep the email short. Few people have time to read a CV, resume, or memoir about who you are and what you have done. Remember, it’s about the potential clients, not you!


If they print it out, it should not be more than a page. (I usually aim for no more than two-thirds of the page.)

You should also give brief (brief!) examples of past work you did. If you are new to consulting, you can give examples from your previous work. The most important thing is to emphasize the results you produced. Do not go into a lot of detail about what you have done and how you did it. Clients want to buy results, not activities.


Now, I’m primarily a generalist so creating substantive descriptions can be tricky for me. Still, my bullets would have to be descriptive enough to have them see themselves and their needs in it.


An example of one of my bullets would be:

  • Skilled group facilitator who can help organizations quickly develop and implement focused growth and sustainability strategies (e.g., service innovation and expansion, mergers, strategic partnerships).

Examples:

  • Facilitated the development of 3-year strategic plan for a mid-sized nonprofit organization and assisted in securing $10 million to implement a new model of care delivery.

The reason that gets potential clients’ attention is that many organizations struggle with exactly what I described in the first bullet. With all of their competing demands for their time and attention, many clients have a tough time figuring out what they should do, making decisions and then knowing what to do next. It’s not just tough, it’s emotional!


I want them to feel that I can make it better and less frustrating. The sub-bullet is a concrete, the-proof-is-in-the-pudding example. I know most potential clients have done some type of strategic planning and many have not had a good experience because nothing happened afterward. So, I tell them what I did, and I give an example of a big $10-million-dollar-success that happened afterward. Your results don’t have to be about money, but they do have to demonstrate that you get results that matter to them.


Then Something About You (That's Really About Them)

You should be able to give them easy access to a brief biography about you and examples of your past work if you have them. For the examples, you want to show off the quality of your work. I suggest including 3 to 5 brief examples so they can get a sense of what you can do without a lot of effort. The examples should be directly relevant to your market and niche and what potential clients care about.


And, do not make them take more than 1 or 2 steps to get to your materials. That means no attachments! You should create an online portfolio, page on your website, or a landing page that they can get to by clicking one link included in the email.


Remember, if you make it easy, they are more likely going to take the time to look at your stuff. You are also giving them an experience of what it will be like to work with you. All value and ease, no fuss! Lastly, make sure it looks polished and professional and matches the feel of your field.


Clarify Your Call to Action and Make it Easy

The main thing you want potential clients to do is to meet with you. And you want them to schedule a meeting with you before they close the email.


Don’t make them have to figure out what to do next.


Don’t make them go back and forth on email trying to find a time. It’s annoying and will cause some people to stop responding.


Tell them what they should do and include a link so they can immediately book a meeting in your online scheduling system.


The email your draft for your contact to send should include this and stand out on the email:

Schedule a time to talk: [Link to schedule a meeting]


If they want to learn more about you, they can click on a link to do that. If you send them to your website, make sure it has a bold button or copy in multiple places that tells them what you want them to do and lets them click one time to get to where they can do that. For example, have a brightly-colored button at the top of your website and in several other places that says “Schedule a Call.” If they click it, it should take them to your scheduling system where they can easily book a meeting.


Other Tips and Tricks

  • Should I personalize my emails? Yes, indeed. You’ll increase the number of people who send your email out if they feel like you are personally asking them for help. The bulk of your email requests should be the same but add their name and a couple sentences at the beginning of each email request that connects you directly to them.

  • Should I ask them to include me in their email and/or do a direct introduction? For this technique, no. There are times when cc’ing you or introducing you is appropriate. Otherwise, aim to keep it low-burden and low-pressure for the people in your network and potential clients.

  • Should I remind people to send my email out? Yes! Send your first email on Tuesday at around 11 am. Then send a friendly, brief reminder on Thursday. Include your original email content below the reminder. If they didn’t send it before, this will make it easy for them to do it now—without them having to search through their email again. The following Tuesday send a brief email to everyone in your network thanking them for helping you. Do not ask them to do anything. Just thank them. You’ll probably get a few more people sending your email out just because they saw your thank-you email. Then leave them alone.

  • What if I get a contract? If you get the contract, first thank the person who sent them to you. Second, it may seem obvious, but…do a fantastic job for the client! The more value you can add, the more likely they are to come back for more and tell everyone they know about you. You also are borrowing the credibility of the person in your network who sent your email. Always treat that with the utmost respect by delivering on your promises to the new client they helped you get.


Can I get templates for my emails?

Of course! Click here to get free new-and-improved email templates for:

  • The email for you send to people in your network asking for their help

  • Reminder emails to people in your network

  • Thank-you emails to people in your network



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