Freelancing: It’s Not Business – It’s Personal

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If you’re a freelancer like me, your biggest concern is probably getting more business. For many of us, however, selling our services is the most difficult part of our job. If the prospect of trying to sell yourself fills you with trepidation, this article is for you.

The secret to sales success is simple: it’s not business, it’s personal.

Most of us have been brought up to believe that business is the domain of cool reason. The refrain, "It’s not personal, it’s business," seems to indicate that our feelings and emotions get in the way when it comes to being a success in business.

That’s a load of horse dung.

Feelings Matter

Human beings have feelings for a reason, and one of them is to help us make better decisions – in business or otherwise. Psychological studies have shown that people who have lost their ability to feel emotions actually do perform more poorly on tests of decision-making. Our feelings can help us understand on a visceral level what may be difficult to put into words. Some choices simple "feel" bad, or make us nervous, even if we can’t put a finger on the reason why.

The most important (and profitable) feeling you can cultivate in potential clients is the feeling of familiarity. Every potential client, no matter how rational, feels much more comfortable delegating to a freelancer that she knows and trusts, than to a stranger.

Familiarity is all about eliminating uncertainty. When I’m choosing a new vendor, I’m full of uncertainty. Will they meet my expectations? Or, more likely, will they disappoint me and force me to clean up after them?

After many years of experience, I’ve coined what I call Yeh’s Law of Novelty. Yeh’s Law states that whenever you establish a relationship with a new party, be they an employee or a freelancer, even with the strictest due diligence, there’s a 33% chance you’ll be satisfied and a 66% chance you’ll be disappointed. If you don’t do your due diligence, that rises to a 95% probability.

If you disagree, and feel that your experiences have been different, please send me your vendor list. Better yet, send me a purchase order so I can start selling my services to you!

When you take Yeh’s Law into account, is it any wonder that most potential clients prefer doing business with people they know? Yes, you may be the greatest Web designer in the world, and your rates may be less than those their current design firm charges, but as far as a potential client knows, there’s still a 66% chance that you’re a bozo who won’t deliver. The potential advantages of trying a new designer simply can’t overcome the risk of going with an unknown.

Of course, Yeh’s Law isn’t all bad – after all, it makes it easier for you to keep your clients.

Getting Personal – Getting New Clients

"Great," you think, "that’s fine for people who are established, but I’m just starting out. How am I supposed to get new clients?"

To get new clients, you need to make Yeh’s Law work for you. You need to put yourself in a position where potential clients are certain that you’re in that magical 33% of vendors who deliver good work. To do that, you need to get personal.

If you’re a freelancer, your #1 source of business should be people you know. Your #2 source of business should be people who know the people you know. That’s because when it comes to getting gigs, it’s about not what you know or even who you know – it’s about who knows you (mind you, once you’ve won the business, you’d better deliver!).

The easiest way to get started is with the standard contact networks – the folks in your home town, fellow alumni from your college or university. Yet while these contacts are important, a lack of these contacts needn’t be a disadvantage. In fact, sometimes you’re better off without them. Why? Because these contacts are general. General contacts can generate business, but they can also drain your most valuable resource – your time – with little payoff. The best contacts for drumming up business are industry-specific.

How To Win Friends And Influence People

"Okay," you think, "I get it. Make industry-specific contacts. That’s easier said than done."

True, it isn’t easy to make useful business contacts, especially if you’re not fond of public speaking or tooting your own horn. Fortunately, you don’t need to do either. Substance — not style — is the philosophy you should follow. Here are a few simple dos and don’ts to help you get personal with your business.

Do attend networking events with potential customers

If you’re shy, try to go to events which offer a structured approach to networking. For example, I belong to the Software Development Forum’s Founder’s Forum. This is a group of company founders that meets regularly to share problems and advice. Not coincidentally, that advice can lead to mutually beneficial deals. At the beginning of each meeting, each member introduces her or himself and talks about what their company does.

Don’t start by pitching your services

However, even though it may be tempting, don’t be one of those jerks where everything that comes out of their mouth is a pitch for their business. Think of it this way – trying to start a relationship by doing nothing but pitching your services is like trying to start a television network by showing nothing but infomercials. It may work on a few people, but it’ll turn off everyone else.

Do offer free advice to people who ask for it

I’ve heard some people speak against offering free advice. "If you give it away, why will they pay you for it?" I disagree; unless you can prove to a potential client that you can meet or exceed its expectations, you’ll never get its business. Dispensing free advice is a cheap way to prove your worth. Just make sure that you charge when a contact asks for more substantive help.

Don’t spend a lot of money joining clubs and associations

I think paid networking is like a dating service. I’ve heard that it’s worked for other people, but I personally don’t believe in paying for it. There are enough free opportunities out there that you should never have to pay for the chance to meet other people.

Do follow up with people one-on-one

While it’s great to meet people, to really develop rapport, you need to meet with someone one-on-one. Meet for lunch. Or, if you don’t have the time or money, simply set a time to talk on the phone for 15 minutes. You’ll get more out of a 15 minute true conversation than any 15 minutes you spend at a networking meeting.

Don’t ask for something every time you re-connect with someone

Harvey Mackay put it best: dig your well before you’re thirsty. If the only time someone ever hears from you is when you need something, it won’t take them long to figure out that you’re just using them. It’s okay to seek utility in relationships, but you need to reciprocate with your own utility. A lot of folks advise you to clip articles or send news items that your contacts might find interesting. That’s fine, but you could also simply call someone up and ask how they’re doing. People love to talk about themselves (I know I do!) – give them the opportunity to do so, and you’ll find that they’re more likely to help you when the time comes.

Do be proud of what you do

Last and most importantly, take pride in what you have to offer. If you’re a Web designer or Webmaster, be proud of the skills that you offer your clients. If you don’t believe that they’re better off with you than the competition, it’s time to find a new line of work.

If you’re proud of what you do, that pride will come through, and talking to potential clients will be a pleasure. If you’re ashamed or embarrassed or simply think you’re not good enough, that too will come through. Before trying anything else that I’ve advised, make sure you’re happy with your professional self. If not, nothing else you do will matter.

Chris YehChris Yeh
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Chris Yeh is a partner at Porthos Consulting, a sales and marketing consultancy that focuses on delivering measurable gains in lead generation and revenues. Chris and his work have been featured in Fortune, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.

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