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Mapping the client

In a recent column, our advisor told you what to spend to start your business. Now, she tackles the really tricky part: how to get the money flowing back to you.

In a recent letter to our feedback section, astute reader Tom King pointed out that my column on starting your own business contained a wealth of information on where to spend your money, but didn’t focus much attention on how to actually get clients and begin generating revenue. It was an excellent point, and one that I aim to tackle right here and now. Building a client base takes time and attention; in many ways, it’s like starting a garden from a bare patch of ground. At the beginning, the effort will seem exhausting, especially if you’ve never even had a houseplant, but slowly it will begin to take shape. In time, the first sprouts will emerge and you’ll have to tend them well but not too much, and think about ways to expand your little plot into a greener, leafier empire. In other ways, it’s nothing like a garden. After all, who’s ever had to buy advertising to get their azaleas to appear?

The first step in getting clients is to get your name into other people’s heads. This can be done with advertising, but again, if you’re looking for cheap ways to promote yourself, nothing beats networking. Right now, there’s a boom in online social networking and sites like Meetup, Orkut, LinkedIn, and others give people a chance to connect. LinkedIn in particular is notable for the business-minded networker, because it doesn’t cater to the “wanna be my friend?” crowd that can populate other sites. To join, simply sign up and then get a few other networking-inclined pals to sign up as well. You can do a search on the type of people you’d like to meet, such as potential business partners, and start a conversation over e-mail. Although LinkedIn is planning to add a premium service to its site later this year that involves a fee, there’ll always be a non-fee way to network as well, according to the company. Once you have some clients, it’s tempting to barrel ahead and keep adding to your client roster until you have to hire help to handle them all.

But be cautious; adding more and more new clients is great, but be sure that you’re attending to the needs of your established clients as well. Some independent contractors and entrepreneurs focus more on client acquisition than on client care, and this can be actually be hurting the business. The old saw is true: ignore your clients and they’ll go away. Doing proper care and feeding of those already in your roster involves a strikingly easy tactic: listen. If you’re charged with implementing their home network, listen to how they describe what they’d like to have. Maybe a homeowner wants a wireless network put in eventually, or needs some tech consulting done at work in a few months.

Jot down notes as they’re talking. Even if they can’t use more of your services next month, they may need you the month after that. Check in with existing clients every six weeks to two months, or sooner if they’ve established a friendly relationship. The “need anything?” doublecheck can be as simple as a quick e-mail, just to keep you in their sights. Ask them how the network is doing, and make sure they haven’t had any problems. The benefit of doing occasional check-ins is that clients will tend to think of you when they’re chatting with friends. After all, how did you find your dentist, hair salon, mechanic, etc.? Chances are that you didn’t go through the yellow pages or see an ad; you asked your buddies if they knew anyone that did good work.

In the same way, client care puts you into that friendship network, where referrals are golden. A minor tidbit of advice is to give them something “on the house.” You don’t have to strain your bank account to give away routers; small items will be much appreciated. Bartenders give away drinks to build goodwill, and you can do the same with inexpensive parts. When giving them an invoice, mark the item as “free” so that get that warm, happy feeling that comes with getting something for nothing. However, it’s not advisable to give away your time–this sends the message that your time isn’t valuable. These are just a few tips for getting some clients and making sure they stay happy. As with other business topics, there’s a bevy of books available on the topic, and at least a couple of these should land in your shopping cart.

The important thing to remember is that without clients for a freelance business, it’s not much of a business at all. Focusing on how to get them, and especially, how to treat them once they’re yours, is worth time and research. And hey, it’s free!

Send your career-related questions to Elizabeth Millard.

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