From Zero to Clients: Starting (or Re-starting) Your Word-of-Mouth Referral Machine

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.

LIVE WEBINAR

Date: Thursday, August 20, 2015

Time: noon EDT / 9am PDT / 4pm GMT

Duration: 1 Hour

Cost: $20

Can’t attend live? Register now and get access to the recording at the reduced $20 rate. (Archived webinars are $29.95)

You’ll learn:

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.

Getting powerful testimonials Learn what questions elicit the best testimonials from everyone you know.


Don’t miss this webinar! Thursday, August 20 — noon EDT / 9am PDT / 4pm GMT

Fishing in the Right Pond

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.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Pricing

fire illustrationAre you happy with how much your clients are paying you? If not, perhaps you have been committing one of the Seven Deadly Sins of Pricing:

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.

Want to learn more about pricing yourself so you can make a profit? Check out my webinar and online course on successful pricing for solopreneurs!

What I wish I’d known when I started out

I’m often asked by my coaching clients what I wish I had known when I launched my business. Of the numerous lessons I learned the hard way, these are the 10 I see as key:

  • 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?

Specialist or generalist? – part 2

knifeswiss-army-knifeIn 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.

Specialist or generalist? – part 1

swiss-army-knifeknifeOne 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.