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  • Writer's pictureDeb Zahn

Land Your First Consulting Client: A Low-Burden Technique to Leverage Your Network

Is trying to figure out how to get your first client as a new consultant stressing you out? If you are new at a firm and expected to generate revenue, you’ll be under pressure to get clients in the door and demonstrate why it was a good idea that they hired you. If you’re independent, your income depends on you getting contracts with clients fast. Getting your first client can help relieve that stress and pressure and let you focus again on why you became a consultant—to help people!

Activate Your Network

The good news is that there are some great techniques that can help you land your first client. One of the most powerful techniques is to tap into something you already have: your network. Ask your network to help connect you with potential clients. This is better than cold networking—reaching directly out to people who don’t know you—because you are using existing connections. You are asking people who know you to help you connect with people who know them, which means they are more likely to respond.

Your network is more than you think. I don’t mean just people you know from your former job. I mean everyone who knows you, likes you, and is willing to help you. Yes, that includes grandma! (But more about grandma in a minute…)

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 at the firm where I worked 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 a successful at it. One of the main things they want is for me to introduce them to people I know so that they can get clients. I like helping people, especially folks who I think can add value to people in my client network.

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. They are trying to find a job or get introduced to potential clients in the field I work in. Most of the time they don’t say why. They just say that this person is someone who they think I should meet, and they attach the person’s resume. Very vague!

The problem with both of 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 often 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. I really want to help people, but I am busy, so I need it to be easy!

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

This technique is a numbers game. Big numbers matter because it means you need a small hit rate to get your first 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 20 people in their networks. That’s 300 people!

  • Even ignoring the people who may forward it to others, you only need way 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! In addition to grandma, just make sure that you ask as many people as possible who you think could be likely to yield results in there as well. 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 I…ask people if they are willing to send emails on my behalf first and then send them the email? I’d say no. Why? Because you are now asking them to do 2 things: 1) answer you 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.

Make it Low Burden for Potential Clients

So now your network is activated, and a decent percentage are going to send the email to spread the word about you and the great things you can do for clients because you have made it really easy for them. Yay you! Now, how do you make it easy for a potential client to say yes? The key is to make it easy for them to see what you can do to solve their problems and make their lives easier.

Here’s the consulting Jedi skill that could mean the difference between getting a client and not getting a client: your email to the 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 memoir about who you are and what you have done. Remember, it’s about the potential clients, not you!

Your email should include about 3 to 5 bullets that succinctly describe what you can do for a client. The bullets should be descriptive enough that they could copy and paste them into a contract. 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. Clients want to buy results, not tasks.

Now, I’m a 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 focused growth and sustainability strategies, make critical decisions, and prioritize and sequence actions. Examples: Facilitated the development of 3-year new strategic plan for a mid-sized nonprofit organization and assisted in securing $10 million to implement one of the key strategies.

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 afterwards. So I tell them what I did, and I give an example of a big $10-million-dollar-success that happened afterwards. Your results don’t have to be about money, but they do have to demonstrate that you get results that matter to them.

You also want potential clients to easily be able to find out more about you before they reach out to you. You should be able to provide them with a brief biography about you, your resume, 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 examples, including a couple that are brief so they can get a sense of what you can do without a lot of effort. 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 with a link included in the email that someone can click on to get to your materials. I suggest sending them to your website because, when they click on your link, they should be able to go directly to your materials without doing anything else, like having to sign up to the platform you are using. Remember, if you make it easy, they are more likely going to take the time to look at your stuff. And since most folks will know you set up the email with the link, you are also giving them an experience of what it will be like to work with you. All value, no fuss! Lastly, make sure it looks polished and professional and matches the feel of your field.

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 may be times when cc’ing you or introducing you is appropriate, such as when they know someone who needs what you can offer. 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 a friendly, brief reminder a few days after your first email. 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. About three days later, 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 a potential client reaches out to me? If you get even a little nibble from a potential client, do your research. Find out who they are by looking at LinkedIn, their company website, Googling them, whatever you can do to get a better idea of who they are and what they might need. You want your first direct contact with them to be informed. Then respond the day you get the nibble during regular business hours. I have seen too many new consultants wait several days to over a week to respond! You want to show a potential client that you are eager to help them. If you meet or talk with them and they ask for a proposal, tell them you will get it to them in 2 or 3 days and then make sure they get it when you said they would. Remember, you are showing them what it will be like to work with you.

  • 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. I had this happen with a new client in a state we had never worked in before. She loved what we did so much, she couldn’t stop telling everyone about us! Thanks to her, we got multiple new clients and projects worth millions of dollars and now have a great reputation in that state. You also are borrowing the credibility of the person in your network who sent your email. Always treat that with the upmost respect by delivering on your promises to the new client they helped you get.

Can I get templates for my emails?

Click here if you want templates for the emails you can send to your network. The templates include:

  • An email you send to your network asking for their help

  • A reminder email to our network

  • A thank you email to your network

What if I don’t know how to describe what I can do for a client?

That is a common problem for new consultants. A consulting colleague of mine who used to run a multi-million, complex organization said that she felt like all she could say was “I know how to do stuff.” I struggled with the same thing after I transitioned to being a consultant. I didn’t understand how I could have been so successful in my past jobs but could not figure out how to describe what I could do to potential clients or colleagues. It took me about 6 months before I could talk coherently about what I could do and, unfortunately, that was 6 months I could have been helping clients and building my business!

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