Hook, Line and Sinker – Netting your First Clients

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I’ve often looked back and wondered how I’ve made it this far. It’s not that I’m a Web superstar — not by any stretch — but I can’t imagine how I survived the impossible world of being a part-time designer just starting out and looking for his first few clients.

Whether we like to admit it or not, clients (even the painful ones) are the people who make or break our business. Statistically, each client is 11 clients: himself and the 10 other people he would be likely to refer to your business if he was happy with your work. Therefore the pressure is on us as designers and business managers to ensure that we are able to "catch" as many of those 11 clients as possible.

Before I go on, let me first say that this article is not about fishing. I am not a fisherman (my mother’s scalp will attest to this). And I know nada about fishing. That said, common sense suggests that there are at least 4 steps to catching a fish. This article will talk about each of those 4 steps as they relate to catching every single one of those 11 clients we all want.

1. Finding the Perfect Fishing Hole

We’ve all heard the story of "that fishing hole" where your great uncle’s friend’s babysitter’s dog’s mailman caught the fish that was so big they needed to deflate the tires on their SUV to get under the bridge to go home. In business terms this is identifying your target market and exploiting that market’s weaknesses.

In this article we’ll focus on the lifeblood of the small business designer: home town clients. However, these principles are equally applicable to corporations, they just require more paperwork and acetaminophen.

Attempting to find the perfect fishing hole is simple: either find somewhere that nobody’s been to before or go somewhere that has worked for someone else, though they did it all wrong. Essentially this means you can either try to rope a new client and persuade them (without the Mafia for the first few times) that they need a Website or you can gently and professionally (Luigi may be able to help here) offer your services in "bringing their Website up to date" (this is the gentle way to say their site is awful).

The next step is to determine the size and type of fish you want. Do you want small businesses? Medium businesses? Do you want to deal with financial institutions? Doctors? Construction companies? Knowing where you’ll be comfortable and the type of fish you want will make your fishing more effective, and ensure that you spend less time in the wrong type of water.

2. Casting Your Line

After you’ve found your niche in terms of design, as well as the types of clients you want to deal with, you need to actually go about casting your line. There are several different options for this but I’ll focus here on my personal favorite, as other methods tend to yield fewer results and fewer interested clients.

Your first option for contact with your potential clients is to call them. Though cold calling is often looked upon with disdain, the sheer number of successful telemarketing campaigns shows that calling is an effective method. No, I’m not an advocate of telemarketing. But what I do suggest is that you call the client first to establish a relationship and an area of commonality. Also, it’s often easier to take rejection over the phone than it is in person.

The purpose of your call is simple: determine whether the client is a good fish, and determine whether they’re hungry. If both of these conditions are met, your main goal is to set up a meeting time and place with the client; preferably not in either of your offices.

3. Hooking That Fish

You’ve made the call, you’ve got a good size and type of fish and you’re at the meeting… now what? This meeting should last no more then 30 minutes (consider your client’s attention span), and your goal is to leave the client with either:

  • positive thoughts about the prospect of a new Website, or
  • the knowledge that you are a good and professional entrepreneur.

Many people would be saddened if a client didn’t immediately jump at the chance to build a Website. After all, to many of us, there’s nothing more natural then having your fingerprint on the Internet. However, you must not only convince a potential client that a Website is worthwhile for their business (increased marketability, increased branding and the ability to say "for more information, visit our Website") — you must also convince them that you’re not a shark.

If the client doesn’t buy from you, but leaves with the perception that you’re professional and offer a worthwhile service, then you’ve potentially gained access to his 10 friends. If the client buys from you but the service is awful, he isn’t likely to come back or to refer his friends. In fact he’s more likely to be a poison on your company for some time to come. Therefore it’s to your advantage to be the best dinner date your fish has had since prom, and to ensure that even if he doesn’t buy, he at least leaves happy.

4. Reeling Him In

To really make this client "your client" you need to completely understand his needs, offer him solutions that meet those needs in the short and long term, and give him a good reason to come back.

The key to understanding the client’s needs is simply to listen. If you hear where your client has come from and how hard he has worked to establish his business, you’ll gain an appreciation for why he wants his site to be perfect. And if you take that appreciation home with you, you’ll prepare a better product.

You are no good to your client if the solutions you offer don’t fix the problem, don’t improve his business and don’t help him sleep at night. So be creative, be aware of your boundaries and always remember how important his own clients’ business is to him.

Though your first contract with a client may be a simple $50 letterhead, do not treat it with disdain. Often clients need to ensure that they feel comfortable with a company, and the amount of thought and work you put in early on (when it doesn’t quite seem worth it) can benefit you years down the line

Those Other 10 Fish

If you can understand a client’s needs, meet those needs, and provide the best product and service possible, you’ll quickly find your fold of clients growing from one to a half dozen. However, you still haven’t entered into the "big league".

In order to truly grow your business and make your way into the headlines, you need to land the other 10 fish you left back in the lake when you left your client. You need to let him know that the treatment you gave him was not for him alone but represents the standard for every client you ever get: just make sure you mean it.

Some quick ways to show clients you care include:

  • to provide client evaluation forms for their feedback
  • offer special discounts to current customers
  • send newsletters to current customers to let them know about changes in your businesses
  • hand them your business cards and brochures (so they can pass them on to friends)
  • give your client a reason to be proud of the choice they’ve made.

This article isn’t intended as a roadmap to your first million, but it is meant to show you that not only is it possible to get clients when you’re young or inexperienced — it isn’t really that hard. So, pull up your socks, put on a clean pair of underwear and make that call!

Jeremy WrightJeremy Wright
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Having been around the world of IT and business for over a decade, Jeremy has participated in more than his fair share of projects. Read his thoughts and insights at his popular business and IT blog Ensight.

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