For the past nineteen years, I’ve been asking self-employed professionals to tell me the most effective ways they know to get clients. No matter where and when I ask this question, their answers are always the same: “networking,” “referrals,” “word of mouth.” These are the right answers. The professionals I ask know this to be true.
Doing the right thing
But then I ask a follow-up question: “What are you doing right now to market yourself?” And what I hear back is surprising, given the answers to my first question. More than half the people I ask tell me their primary focus is on something OTHER than those answers. They’ll tell me they are building a new website, or mailing out postcards, or running pay-per-click ads, or cold calling strangers, or launching a Facebook page, or exhibiting at an expo, or posting promos on Twitter.
The other folks, the minority, who tell me they ARE spending most of their time networking, building referrals, and actively boosting word of mouth in other ways (like public speaking), are invariably those professionals who are the most successful. They are doing what they know works, and reaping the rewards.
So what’s going on here?
If the professionals who are struggling to get clients already know what to do, why are they doing something else? Why aren’t they using the marketing approaches that work the best? After exploring this question for quite some time, here are the causes I most often see:
- The most effective marketing approaches can also be the most challenging to your psyche. They expose you to the possibility of rejection, and require you to talk to strangers, reach out to acquaintances, or speak in front of a group. It’s so much easier to send out a mailing, buy an ad or trade show booth, or try to attract clients online.
- Networking, building referrals, and increasing word of mouth are approaches that require consistent effort and can take time to pay off. You might find it tempting to instead try for an instant response with letters, ads, or cold calls.
- When professionals begin to market themselves, they often mimic what they see large companies do, thinking this is the path to success. But marketing a small service business is entirely different from marketing a national firm. You don’t have the budget or staff to sustain an expensive advertising campaign, a social media strategy that requires many hours per week, or high-priced promotional events.
- Another type of mimicry that gets professionals in trouble is copying how they see others marketing packaged products or learning programs. But you can’t sell interior design as if it were an ebook, or management consulting as if it were a home-study course. Professionals get hired based on referrals, credibility, and personal relationships, not because they get a lot of web traffic, send email blasts, and offer free bonuses.
- Many professionals are led astray about their marketing by vendors and gurus who are forwarding their own agenda. Web designers say you need a better website; postcard vendors tell you postcards will get you noticed; expo booth reps entice you with early-bird discounts, and everywhere you turn, experts are promoting social media marketing.
It’s not surprising that many professionals make the wrong choices about marketing. After all, the majority of independent professionals aren’t marketing experts; they are experts in their own specialty. It’s also to be expected that many of the folks offering them advice on marketing have their own angle to promote. They are only trying to sell their products and services, just like you.
So before you spend time and money on any marketing approach, check it out first. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are other professionals in your field, with businesses of your size, using this same approach to get clients? Do you have evidence that it’s working for them?
- Is the person who recommended this approach to you someone whose opinion you trust, based on recommendations from others or your own relationship with him or her?
- Will the business you are likely to get from this approach pay for your investment in it AND pay you for the resulting client work?
- Is this the most effective kind of marketing you could do for the time or money involved? Is there another, better approach you may be avoiding because it brings up some fear or resistance?
- Do you actually need any new approaches to marketing right now, or do you just need to apply more persistence and consistency to what you are already doing?
If you don’t have all the clients you need, consider the possibility that maybe you already know all you need to about marketing yourself, and what’s missing is acting on what you know.