By Margy Thomas Horton, Ph.D.*
Three years ago, I thought morning and night about how to get enough clients to fill my schedule at my business, ScholarShape. I knew I could help researchers write better and more efficiently, but there was such a gap between what I knew I could do and what the general population of potential clients (who didn’t yet know I exist) believed I could do. I had to find a way to show people that I could understand their problems and help them define and realize their goals.
Today, when people ask how I get clients, I vaguely reply, “Oh, word-of-mouth, Google, client referrals.” It’s true: I never pay for advertising, yet somehow clients fill my schedule, often booking weeks in advance. My vague answer is unhelpful to a prospective business owner who wants to know about the process of building a client base, rather than what the resulting client flow looks like. How do you get influencers with no financial stake to refer clients to you? How do you write blog posts that Google will find? How do you persuade your first few clients to write glowing testimonials for your website?
The answers to these questions depend on what you’re selling and to whom. But no matter your business model, in order to make a living, a wide audience of potential clients or customers needs to become aware of and confident in the product you offer.
Three years ago, when I set out to communicate about my services to the people who might benefit from them, I tried every tactic I could think of. Given my target audience, I studied academic resource websites, looking for clues about what unmet needs were being felt by whom and in what way. I cold-emailed administrators and professors to “let them in on” the new kinds of services I was offering in case they knew of anyone who might need my help. I scrolled through elance and odesk, but it seemed futile to try selling a service there on quality, not price, so I never made an account. I strolled around the university campuses near me, soaking in the vibe and trying to imagine the world through my potential clients’ eyes. I foisted my open laptop upon near-strangers, asking them what they thought of my homepage. I read every website and library book I could find about how to create a product people would want to buy. I printed business cards and left them in stacks at coffee shops. In one coffee shop I was scolded by the barista for “advertising something for-profit” within the confines of an establishment where I can only assume all coffee, pastries, and logo tee-shirts were handed out for free.
I scattered so many seeds that it’s hard to know now which specific strategies ultimately worked best. In hindsight, I think that more than any single strategy, what has made my business, ScholarShape, work is that it has always been about what clients need. The way I’ve framed my services has grown directly out of my communication with friends, strangers, clients, potential clients, collaborators, and the influencers I admire. This constant give-and-take tells me what is working and what needs adjusting. Five practices have been especially helpful to me in getting and keeping clients:
- Offering the services I’m best at, and being clear on what I’m offering.
In my early days, I used to take on light proofreading/formatting jobs, fixing margins and typos. Now I’ll only do that kind of polishing for clients I’m helping in a substantive capacity. Focusing on the services that most distinguish me as an editor, and that I most enjoy, sets me up to offer services that the client will be thrilled to receive–customized writing consultation, developmental feedback, and substantive editing. I regularly revise my services menu as I gain clarity on how I can best help my clients, and as I make choices about which direction to take ScholarShape. Next up: my very own spin on a writing retreat!
- Getting the right clients.
The right clients are the ones who choose you for the qualities you want to be chosen for, who are willing to trust you, and who value the product you’re offering. For me, the best way to get the right clients is to require payment in advance. This not only simplifies my record-keeping; it also ensures that people have carefully decided whether to hire me and are confident my approach is the one they’re looking for.
- Managing client expectations.
My standard service contract has grown from one to four single-spaced pages in the past two years. Like a syllabus that grows each year to account for contingencies you never could have imagined in your first semester, my contract now details my clients’ and my rights and responsibilities within our working relationship. As my lawyer has explained, the most important function of a service contract is not to resolve a conflict once it has occurred, but rather to establish clear expectations such that most conflicts never arise at all.
- 4. Monitoring client experience.
This includes checking in with clients at natural pauses in the workflow, building in feedback mechanisms to the service process, and creating moments of pleasant surprise for the client. With the services I offer, all of this happens naturally because my services are so high-contact and customized. But it’s important regardless of what you’re selling. Aspire to be like the waiter who refills the water glass before it’s even empty.
- Following up.
Unlike most businesses, which have a newsletter or automated emailing system to maintain client relationships over months and years, my current “system” is just to exchange emails and texts with “inactive” clients from time to time. I still need to figure out my long-term plan for keeping in touch and following up–whether a MailChimp newsletter, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool, or some combination of the two–so that I have a more systematic way stay connected with clients who aren’t actively working on projects with me.
Those of us who make our livelihoods from small businesses must live by a cardinal rule: love thy clients. Our clients are the reason our little enterprises are humming along, and we owe it to them that we can earn our livelihoods doing what we do best. And as long as we keep up our end of the bargain, they’ll make sure our businesses grow–so that we can start losing sleep over what exciting new direction to take our businesses next.
*Margy Horton is a TPII Out-Ac Coach and Consultant and can help you envision and plan your own exit from academia in the form of a small business. Contact us at email@example.com to learn more!