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Recently, a friend told me about her dream of leaving her corporate job and finding a way to make a living doing what she loves — in her case, caring for people’s pets. She already had a name picked out, “Caring Hearts Dog-Walking” and was thinking about how many of her elderly neighbors might want her to walk their dogs.
After we chatted for a while, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to make much of a living if all she did was get paid to walk dogs. Sure, she would be more reliable than the kid down the block, but her neighbors won’t be willing to pay more than $15/hour for her services.
I reminded her that she had just completed her certificate in dog massage and had experience with special-needs pets, and encouraged her to think of herself as a trained professional who brought a range of skills to each companion animal. She isn’t just a dog walker; she provides services that support the pets her clients love.
She decided she would have an informational interview with a friend of hers who is a veterinarian, to find out how she could best support people whose pets were recovering from an illness or injury, medically frail or just old and in need of special TLC. How could she enable people to keep their pets who otherwise would have not been able to provide the support their pets need?
By focusing on where she can offer the most value, she builds a business on clients who would never consider using anyone else for their pet care. She becomes competition-proof, because she offers a level of service that people who see themselves merely as dog walkers never think to provide.
One of the scariest things about being a solopreneur is wondering if you will get paid by your client. Some people can get 100% of their fee up front, but most of us don’t, so we are always taking a risk that our client will decide not to pay us once the project is done.
I was “fortunate” to have gotten two deadbeat clients within the first few years of my business, and I consider myself lucky. They were both small projects, I learned something important from each one, and — surprise! — both clients eventually paid me. First I’ll tell you a little bit about each situation, then I’ll tell you what I learned from each one and how I now avoid repeating my mistakes.
Client A was someone I had worked with in my last employee job. He was a nice guy, and he launched his business as a competitive intelligence consultant about the same time I started my research business. My policy for new clients was (and still is) that I either get a credit card number or prepayment of a certain portion of the anticipated budget, usually 25% or 30%. Client A refused to give me his credit card information and didn’t want to prepay a portion of the job. “I’m astonished that you would ask me for a deposit! How insulting!” Against my better judgement, I agreed to waive the usual prepayment — hey, I knew him from my last job, so of course he’ll pay me. Well, he didn’t; he just ignored all my invoices, phone calls, and letters. I eventually wrote off the invoice and sent him a letter saying that I didn’t want the debt staying on my books and that I forgave the debt. Twelve months later, he sent a check with full payment.
Client B was someone who found me on the web. In retrospect, he sounded like trouble… He started the conversation by asking me for a discount, he constantly criticized his clients, and he complained to me about hard it was to make a profit. While he did pay a deposit for the work, he just never get around to paying the final invoice. He kept putting me off, saying the check was in the mail, saying that he was waiting to be paid by his client, and several other excuses. Again, I sent him a letter forgiving the debt and a year later, he paid up.
But since then, I have always been promptly paid in full by my clients. I realized that it’s my responsibility to manage my client’s expectations, to listen to my gut, and to be very clear about payment terms. Here are the things I do differently now that ensure I get paid every time:
I require prepayment at the start of every project for a new client. I accept credit cards and PayPal, I handle bank wire transfers, and I have never lost a client because they couldn’t find a way to pay a deposit. I’m taking a risk by working on a job without a guarantee that I will get paid (because pursuing a deadbeat client through the court system is not worth the expense), and it is reasonable that my client share the risk.
I make sure my clients understand what the payment terms are. I spell out when payments are due and I check with the client’s Accounts Payable department to find out what information they need in order to set me up as a new vendor. If I am working as a subcontractor, I make sure the prime contractor understands that he is my client and that I will get paid within 30 days regardless of whether he has been paid by his client. personal.
I listen to my intuition more. If something just doesn’t sound right, I keep the conversation going until I am sure that the client understands and agrees to the payment terms. If a prospective client asks me “Do I still have to pay if I’m not happy with your deliverable?”, everything comes to a screeching halt. I spell out the scope (and limits) of the project, assure her that I am committed to providing the deliverable agreed upon, and make it clear that payment is not optional. And if I still feel uneasy, I gently tell her that I am not the best person for their specific needs and, if possible, refer her to a colleague who might have better rapport with her.
I never invest more in a prospect than I can walk away from. When a prospect keeps asking me for more information, an additional proposal, an interview, and maybe another modification of the proposal, I step back and reassess the likelihood of this project ever coming to fruition. I want to make sure I am never in a situation where I feel like I have spent so much time trying to land this sale that I have to take whatever terms are offered, even if that means a very low hourly rate.
And finally, I let go when it’s clear that my client does not intend to pay me. If I open my accounting software and see an invoice six months or more past due despite my best collection efforts, I could get aggravated about the client and my inability to manage the situation. Instead, letting go of the unpaid balance means that I can free up that time and energy to get better clients who value me and are happy to pay.
Forget cold calling! Learn how to get pre-sold clients calling YOU!
Join MARY ELLEN BATES for another dynamic 60 minutes of learning in this LIVE WEBINAR.
Whether you’re just starting out or expanding into a new market, getting clients is one of the hardest aspects of being a solopreneur. In this webinar, Mary Ellen Bates will give you the tools to kick-start your most powerful marketing tool — your word-of-mouth referral network.
The secret to word-of-mouth success You don’t need a fancy business name or killer tag line, but you do have to be memorable.
The 5 word-of-mouth essentials You have to be the first “mouth” in your word-of-mouth network. Learn how to get those first referrals.
Turning colleagues into allies Find out how to turn your competitors into valuable allies.
Working your existing network Even people who aren’t your prospects can be effective word-of-mouth marketers for your business.
One of the secrets to success as a solopreneur, and to building a business that is competition-proof, is to make sure you are fishing for clients in the right pond. The sweetest words out of the mouth of a prospective client are “I had no idea there were people out there like you!” I can offer these clients a service they may not have realized they need, and for which they don’t know where else to turn.
What pond you go fishing in will depend on your specialization, background, existing network, and interest, of course. One way to develop good, on-going clients is to look for people in the revenue-generating aspects of their organization, people who are taking a risk, or people who are making strategic decisions. It can be challenging to find these folks; they don’t respond to direct mail or sales calls, and they won’t find you by surfing the web… they don’t have the time and are not likely to find professional services from a web search.
The best way to cultivate the kinds of clients who will sustain your business is to take the long view with your marketing. Identify the professional organizations your clients belong to, and volunteer to serve on the board of directors or on a high-profile committee. Go to the local – or national – meetings that your clients attend for professional development.
And, perhaps most importantly, listen and pay attention. When I ask a new acquaintance about his or her job, I will often identify a way that I can provide a service, even if my contact doesn’t see the need yet. Just as the serious anglers would never dream of telling you their favorite fishing hole, don’t expect prospective clients to tell you exactly how to pitch to them. You will discover this by establishing trust, asking questions and watching for clues. Your reward may be a pond that supports you well.
1. Pricing low because you’re just starting out. Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you’re not worth as much as others in your field. You are in business because you have a unique set of skills, passions and expertise. You are offering high value to your clients right now.
2. Offering discounts to first-time clients. You want to attract clients who are not price-sensitive, who are motivated to hire you because they value your services. As much as you describe the first-time discount, your clients will experience your regular fee as an unexpected price hike.
3. Offering discounts to encourage repeat business. You may get a prospective client ask you for a discount “because I’ll send you lots of work.” Rather than offer a discount in anticipation of work, only discount your fee to clients who have a proven track record of repeat business.
4. Basing your rate on others’ rates. Solopreneurs who are charging on the higher end of the scale don’t advertise their rates; solopreneurs who are charging far too little do tend to advertise their rates. And, in any event, no one offers quite the combination of insight and expertise that you do. Charge what you are worth, not what other people think they are worth.
5. Telling clients your hourly rate. Most successful solopreneurs charge over $100/hour, and that can sound frighteningly high to prospective clients who don’t know what you can do in an hour. When a prospect asks for your hourly rate, what they really want to know is what a typical project will cost.
6. Focusing on finding retainer clients. While they sound like a nice thing, retainer clients hold you back by focusing on one aspect of what you do. They usually pay you for hours worked rather than results generated, so you are not able to price according to your value.
7. Arguing with clients about your fee. If a client isn’t willing to pay your regular fee and you are unwilling to offer a discount, walk away. Focus on identifying and then reaching out to a new set of clients who are not price-sensitive.
- Make all your decisions with the assumption that you will still be in business in five years. Knowing you’ll live with the long-term results of your choices encourages you to make wise decisions.
- It’s always about the client’s needs; it is never about your qualifications. Never pitch a service until you know why your client would want it.
- Create what Alan Weiss calls “marketing gravity” — you want to attract clients, not chase after them.
- Your clients are paying for results, not activity. Focus on what differentiates you from the $15/hour “professional” services on the web.
- You have to initiate discussions about money and payment with your clients; remember: it’s business, not personal.
- Volunteering is a tremendously effective way to market yourself, provided you are member-facing and you highlight your professionalism.
- Until a prospective client is willing to commit to a project, you’re not talking to a client.
- Your clients will be the source of your ideas for new products or services. Listen to them when they say, “I don’t know if you do this, but could you…?”
- Time management is critical. Can you stay focused and productive without an office structure or looming deadline?
- You will find this an even more rewarding job than you expected!
What do YOU wish you had known when you launched your business?
In my earlier post, I talked about finding my specialization not in a particular field but in a special service I provide my clients. That may not be the best approach for you, particularly if the service you provide doesn’t by itself set you apart.
When you start your business, it is tempting to say “I can do anything for anyone.” Why limit yourself when you have lots of skills? You don’t want your clients to pigeonhole you into one tiny niche when there’s so much you could do for them, right? And surely you’ll get more clients by being a generalist, because everyone can use your services.
Actually, every one of those assumptions is wrong. The only way to stand out in a client’s or prospect’s mind is to be known as the expert, the best (and maybe only) person who does what you do. Let’s go through each of the common reasons new solopreneurs give for trying to be generalists, and see what’s wrong with them.
Why not offer to do anything for anyone? The short answer is you can’t offer the same level of expertise and insight to everyone. No one has a deep understanding of every aspect of a profession, whether that’s graphic design, financial planning or marketing communications. You can thrive by focusing on the best aspects of your profession — the fastest growing field, the areas that are least price-sensitive, the professionals who see the immediate benefit of using your services. Instead of casting a wide net and having to throw out a lot of bycatch, you can focus on more selective marketing approaches that attract more of your best prospects.
Why limit yourself when you have lots of skills? Even if you have a wide range of skills, you don’t need to share them all with everyone. Think about what specific skill to talk about in each situation, something your listeners will understand, relate to and remember. For example, I provide business analysis to strategic decision makers; I offer professional-development workshops for researchers and info pros; I provide individual coaching for new and long-time solopreneurs; I write books and articles about the information industry; and I am developing a series of online courses. There is no way that anyone I talk with would remember all those things (or want to!), so I focus on one aspect of my business that would be most relevant to that person. When I am speaking before an audience, I learn enough about the participants to know what part of my skill set to highlight in my presentation and examples. By making one facet of myself memorable, I generate far more word of mouth referrals than I would by giving everyone a laundry list of all the services I offer.
What if your clients pigeonhole you? Being pigeonholed isn’t a bad thing! Everyone is looking for a way to remember things, so make it easy for the people you interact with to remember you by, well, being memorable. You aren’t just another online marketing consultant; you help dentists generate 30% more new clients with strategic social media activities. You are not just any financial planner; you specialize in working with family-owned businesses facing intergenerational conflict. When prospects call you, they know you will understand their situation, you will be familiar with the underlying issues, and you can speak cogently about options and alternatives. You have instant credibility. Your clients want someone who “gets” them; being seen as a specialist makes it more likely that everyone you encounter remembers you as the go-to person for something unique.
Won’t you get more referrals when you offer a wide range of services? Actually, you’ll find just the opposite. Most prospects do not find generalists memorable… they often just appear to be unfocused or as having only a shallow understanding of a wide range of topics. While you may provide a variety of services or have a familiarity with a number of industries, the person you’re talking with is much more likely to remember one specialized thing you do rather than to remember you as that person who seems to do something or other. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather get three calls from people who know they need my services right now than get no calls because no one can remember specifically who I am or when to refer people to me.
Are you at a loss for how to specialize? One of the best ways to identify a niche that is personally, professionally and financially rewarding is to conduct half a dozen informational interviews. These are powerful tools for identifying your best clients and learning how to focus your services to what they value the most.
One of the most common questions I’ve heard from solopreneurs is “should I specialize in a niche or be a generalist?” My advice, almost to a one, is to find an area in which you can focus and become known as the go-to person for that niche.
I learned this lesson myself when I first started my research business, way back in 1991. I was coming from a background in the telecom industry, so I figured I would focus in that area. I reached out to my colleagues in AIIP to introduce myself and tell them of my specialization, which back then was fairly unusual. I knew there weren’t going to be that many times when anyone would get a request for a telecom expert, but I figured they would remember me and could be good referral sources.
Sure enough, I was able to get my business going by being known as the telecom research queen. I was brought into larger projects for my familiarity with obscure resources within the US Federal Communications Commission or the International Telecommunications Union (hey, maybe it’s not sexy, but it’s a living). And, of course, once a client got to know me, they would use me for other business-related projects, regardless of the industry.
They (and I) realized my real specialization wasn’t that particular industry — it was my ability to scope out, research and analyze an industry, and create a report that enabled my clients to make a decision.
What are the unique skills you bring to every job you do? Is it your ability to work with clients to identify their underlying needs when they can’t figure out what they want? Are you the one who can interview anyone about any topic, and always glean amazing insights for your clients? Can you take a vague idea and turn it into a brand identity that transforms a client’s image into something fantastic?
I went from an industry focus to being focused on enabling better strategic business decisions, but you don’t have to leave your field in order to succeed. In my next post, I’ll talk about the value of specializing within an industry rather than being a generalist.
I’ve been an online searcher since the 19-mumbles, and I’m still learning new search tricks. Here are a couple of tips for mining online databases that I picked up from Cynthia Hetherington, a Big Kahuna in the private investigative world, during an excellent webinar on due diligence she gave for AIIP.
When you are exploring a new resource for information on individuals and want to figure out how far back in time the dataset goes, try searching for a common name like Smith. Since it’s a safe assumption that there will be Smiths in even the earliest records, you can just sort the search results in chronological order from earliest forward, and you’ll probably see the first year of coverage. You could use the same approach with any other type of database — just search for something that is likely to occur very frequently, and then see the date of the earliest record you retrieve. Searching an export database? Try a common export like machinery. Checking out a database of news articles? Search for the word President.
Another trick I learned from Cynthia relates to those times when you’re looking for reliable information on a topic and keep turning up too much irrelevant material. Try restricting your search to only government sites by adding to your search the phrase site:gov. Sure, it’s a very restrictive search and probably won’t turn up a lot of results, but the sites you do get will probably be useful. Cynthia recommended using this technique when looking for public records on individuals and needing to weed out all the resellers of government data.
(I was surprised at how useful this was. When googling bull snakes, having found one living in my backyard, I wasn’t finding much reliable information. Even the Wikipedia entry was full of “citation needed” notes. Limiting my search to .gov or .edu sites, I turned up several useful articles from university extension services and state government web sites. Bull snakes are our friends!)
What search tricks have you learned recently?
Every now and then, Google re-brands the portal it’s designed for journalists. They just put out a press release announcing the Google News Lab, so I had a reason to look at the site again. In no particular order, here are the reasons why you—yes, you, non-journalist—should go look at the News Lab.
First, it’s designed from the user’s point of view rather than a Google engineer’s POV. What a concept! To start with, the shortened URL to get to the site is a mobile-friendly g.co/newslab. While you may not have had the foresight to register a three-letter domain like Google did, consider creating short, customized URLs for any site you want people to get to easily.
The front page offers multiple ways to engage with the site. There are four large graphics that offer brief tutorials for the various Google platforms, organized by Research, Report, Distribute and Optimize. Each of these areas features five to 10 tutorials on very focused, targeted activities relevant to journalists—everything from using Google Earth to creating consumer surveys and shaping stories to encourage binge watching.
There are also links across the top of the page, breaking out the content by type, including Tools, Data and Programs. The Tools link takes you to all the tutorials; the Data links offer examples of innovative ways that journalists and news organizations have created insight using Google’s data sets, and Programs highlights partnerships Google has with media organizations and the journalist community.
Much of the material in these lessons could be of use to solopreneurs as well. Do you know how and when to use Google’s reverse image search? Are you tagging your YouTube videos (webinars, podcasts, etc.) so that they are easily findable by your audience? Have you checked out Google Public Data Explorer‘s data sets and data viz tools to spice up a presentation?
Beyond raising your search and analysis skills, look at the News Lab for ideas on how to present your services or products in ways that make sense to your user community.