Chapter 8: Building Relationships That Build Your Business (and Revenue)
In researching this chapter, we contacted marketing experts in hopes of getting top marketing tips for IT freelancers, or something to that effect. But what Andy Singer , principal and cofounder of Ignyte Marketing Group , said to us was, "Don't call it marketing."
He made a good point. "Marketing" evokes images of departments of people who like buzzwords and flashy attention-getting strategies that seem to have little or nothing to do with the products or services they're responsible for promoting. (Note: the writer of this guide is a marketing professional, so she knows what she's talking about.)
When it's done right, though, marketing is just a scaled-up way of building relationships with existing and potential clients. And strong relationships lead to repeat business, word-of-mouth referrals, and a decreased risk of lawsuits when things go wrong.
Maybe the best part about relationship building as a way of growing a business, though, is that it's not hard, it's not expensive, and it doesn't have to be time-intensive. In fact, by implementing any one of the three strategies Singer recommends for IT freelancers, you can turn your clients into enthusiastic fans and promoters of your work.
Part 1: Networks
IT professionals know better than anyone that networks are an effective way of connecting lots of disparate items. That's no less true today than it was in 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. From a relationship-building perspective, the networks you're part of let you get the word out to lots of people without sounding cheesy or overly salesy.
Think of it this way: everyone you know uses technology, and most of them will have a problem with their technology at some point. If they know of someone who can help them with that problem, they'll probably turn to that person before hitting the anonymity of the Internet. Building relationships within your existing networks is all about making sure the people you know are aware of the services you offer. There are three major ways to make your networks a source of potential client relationships:
- Spreading the word to the "real life" network. This includes family, friends, past clients, former colleagues, and more. Let them know you've started a business, tell them what you do, and encourage them to send work your way if they know of someone you can help.
- Tapping into the power of online networks. Facebook, Yelp!, LinkedIn, and Twitter are all places where businesses can go to spread the word about what they do and make themselves findable to potential customers. Many of these sites also allow your clients to write reviews so you can build credibility among those who come across you.
- Building a website. The Internet may be the biggest network of all. If there's no place potential clients can easily find you online, you're likely missing out on a lot of potential work.
“Bite the bullet and start going to as many networking events as you can stomach early on. Sales is not usually the strong suit of most IT types, but it is the oxygen of a business and you can't thumb your nose at it if you want to succeed. Good work and a good reputation are not enough to grow a business.” — Tim Singleton , owner of Strive Technology Consulting
Part 2: Messaging
While there are plenty of relationship-building efforts you can do for free (see above), there are others that are well worth a small investment. And if you're looking to spend money on something that will have a lasting impact on your business, Singer recommends buying a messaging platform.
Never heard of it? Don't worry. Singer laid it out for us: basically, a messaging platform is something you hire a marketing consultant to prepare for you. It's a kind of value statement that helps customers understand…
- Who you are.
- What services you provide.
- How you address your clients' needs.
- How your services are different from your competitors'.
- What values are at the center of your business.
In some cases (depending on your budget), you may also want to invest in developing a logo.
Once you have the marketing platform language, you can use it on your website, in any press releases you do, in RFPs, in an elevator pitch, and any time you're required to write a bio. And before you write the messaging platform off as marketing mumbo-jumbo, consider this: in 2012, a study conducted by the Corporate Executive Board found that by the time buyers contact a business, they're already 57 percent of the way through the traditional sales process, thanks to information available online.
Translation: clients are making buying decisions based on online research. If there's no information about your services online, you're making a lot more work for yourself.
Part 3: Checking In
If you're too pressed for time to build an online presence and don't yet have the cash flow to justify creating a messaging platform, there are still important relationship-building techniques you should be implementing. Singer emphasizes that these are simple, no-cost, and not particularly time-intensive — but they can make the difference between an indifferent client and a happy one.
These strategies include…
- Talking with a client (even briefly) about the status of an ongoing project.
- Answering questions promptly when a client emails you.
- Keeping in touch with former colleagues and letting them know about your new work.
- Meeting with other business owners to find out how they build relationships with clients.
In other words, keep communication lines open to ensure happy current clients and increase the pool of word-of-mouth referrals. Singer emphasizes that relationship building is not something that happens quickly, but it's an incredibly valuable part of starting a business. Doing little things every day can add up to strong, lucrative relationships down the road.
“Associate with other successful business owners — I cannot stress this enough. Spending time with others who are already in the position that you desire is invaluable. You will even begin to differentiate between good owners and the best. I recently attended a Best Places to Work event. Even there, among the best in the city, there was a clear distinction between the companies that truly have the best culture and the ones that were there for the publicity. Get in front of business owners, good and bad. Learn from every interaction.” — Nick Boris , owner, Pittsburgh Technology Management
Next: Chapter 9: HR for Technology Freelancers: Choosing Values, Not Just Skills