How did you find your first client? If you’ve been a Virtual Assistant or freelancer for a while, you may look back and see that you have an interesting story to tell. Unlike the corporate world, the virtual world doesn’t require us to put on our best power suit and attend a formal interview. Sometimes we just need to know how to find ideal clients right in our own backyard.
In a previous Virtual Office Hours session at Freelance University, we had the privilege of hearing an interview with Sabrina Espinal, our FreeU Community Manager. She’s been helping clients build their Social Media platforms for almost a decade through her business Sabrina&Company.
Sabrina has an interesting story to tell about how she found clients in New York. She had the idea of doing Twitter with local businesses, and her first client was a business owner around the corner from her husband’s job.
She says, “I literally stood on the corner, because I’m a little shy.” She then told her husband, “Go over there and ask him if he needs help with Twitter.” As she stood at a distance, the client motioned her to come off the corner and come over, and the connection was made.
Later on, she started doing Social Media for the restaurant where her husband works. She also went into a bagel shop and said, “Hi, I’m Sabrina. I buy bagels here all the time. Do you need help with Twitter?” And that’s how she found many clients, going to places where she ate and saying, “Hey, you remember me? Can I help you with Twitter?”
Sabrina’s story shows that often, the best way to start your VA or freelance business is to tap into your current connections and your local networks. It could be your chiropractor or a favorite restaurant you attend.
I like to think of our local networks as a series of circles.
In the middle, you have your close family and friends, then colleagues, acquaintances, and local business owners in the outer circles. The people in the inner circle are the ones you know best. They may or may not need your services, but they can help you spread the word. The outer circles are people you may have to approach more formally yourself, or they may be referrals from your inner circle.
As Brent Galloway says in his article “How to Find Clients & Market Your Freelance Business – The Ultimate Guide,”
“The very first place to start is to reach out to your family, friends, past employers, past school instructors, and any other important people in your life, and tell them about what it is you’re doing. Let them be your first referrers! You’ll need their support, and the more people who know about your freelance business, the better chance you’ll have at getting a lead.”
Although putting yourself out there can be nerve-racking, Sabrina’s story shows that it can get easier. After connecting with her first client through her husband, Sabrina made further connections on her own and built a thriving social media business.
Here are some tips on how to find ideal clients in your local network:
1. Be a good customer/colleague/friend/family member.
This first tip might seem a little obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind. It relates to how you behave around potential clients and also around your inner circle of family and friends. Your local network is where your personal life crosses over into your professional life, so be an upstanding person that others would love to refer.
– If you’re seeking clients at your favorite restaurant, for example, make sure you’re a pleasant customer and not the kind who gets cranky and sends the soup back if it’s a degree or so too cold.
– Maintain healthy relationships with past and present colleagues.
– Love your family and friends well, and support them in their endeavors.
– Think of your local network as people first, and potential clients second.
2. Listen to your network.
A large part of finding clients locally is listening and identifying the perfect moment to join a conversation or approach a business owner. In an article titled “15 Tips for Cold Calling to Get Freelance Clients,”
Evan Tarver has some good advice. He says, “You might be inclined to talk more about your offer and dominate the conversation. But asking questions and actually listening to your prospect’s answers is a way to learn more about their needs and wants. When you listen, you can gain insight into their problems and you can provide actual solutions that will benefit them.”
So before you hand out your business card at a family reunion or your favorite ice cream shop, feel out situations. Typically a moment will occur where a business owner will mention a need, or a relative will ask what you’re up to these days, and you’ll have the opportunity to talk about your business. Here are some strategies to keep in mind:
– Listen for needs expressed in casual conversation.
– Be brave enough to present your services as a solution to those needs if they fit your niche.
– Watch for needs expressed more formally (through advertising, etc.) at local businesses.
– Determine whether you should speak directly to the business owner, or if someone in your inner circles should refer you to them.
3. Research your client prospects.
Once you’ve identified your ideal clients in your neighborhood, take some time to learn more about them. Sometimes you’ll stumble upon opportunities and key connections, and other times you’ll need to seek them out yourself. Be sure you have a good grasp on their brands, products, and services so you know how they tick. Also pinpoint who’s in charge of the business so you know who to approach.
In the article mentioned above, Brent Galloway recommends finding the contact name and email of the person who would most likely have the influence to hire you. He also suggests reviewing a potential client’s online presence to see if there’s any value you could offer, such as building them a more effective website. A key question he suggests asking yourself is “How can you make their business better with your services?”
Here are some examples of information you could search for, depending on your niche:
– Do they have a website? If so, does it look like it’s been updated recently?
– Are they active in social networks, or was their last Facebook post or tweet eons ago? Could they benefit from joining a new social network?
– Do they have an opt-in box on their website indicating they send out an email newsletter? If not, could they benefit from one?
– Do they have a blog on their website? Has it been a while since they published a blog post?
4. Define your niche and business structure.
When you’re just starting out in the Virtual Assistant or freelance industry, you may find clients in your local network before you’ve even defined your business name and rates. That certainly happened to me. I found my first transcription client through a referral from my father, and then rushed out and registered a trade name.
As soon as you’re ready to start working, it’s a good idea to define your niche or at least a niche you’d like to try. When finding clients through a local network, there can sometimes be a bit of awkwardness if family, friends, or acquaintances misunderstand or presume what sorts of tasks you can or want to do.
Amelia Garvey has some good advice in her article, “Grow Your Freelancer Network: Solve Problems, Get Clients“:
“You’ll never be all things to all people, especially as a freelancer. This is why it’s important to identify in which niche you operate, and how your unique background, perspective, and experience makes you ideally suited to that niche. Understanding this will help narrow your networking focus, and ensure that your efforts are directed at the right audiences.”
On one hand, it’s hard to say no when a good opportunity pops up from a referral… On the other hand, it’s tough if you say yes and end up doing tasks you normally wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
Also, be sure to define your rates as soon as you can, and give yourself permission to charge them. If you know clients personally or feel indebted to your chiropractor, it’s easy to agree to work for free as a favor to them. But it’s important that you present yourself as a professional so you aren’t advertised within your network as a low-cost or free option.
5. Have clear contact information.
One of the tricky parts of communicating these days is that there are so many ways to contact people. In addition to phone, there’s now text, email, Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn Messaging, Twitter, Skype, and… you get the picture.
With so many communication channels, it’s easy to miss an important message coming in from your local network. I once missed a Facebook message from an acquaintance about an editing referral because I didn’t realize I was signed out of Messenger. Within four hours, the project had gone to someone else.
Ideally, it’s good to have business cards with your name, business name, website, and contact information. When the opportunity presents itself, you can hand these out so people know how to contact you.
But if you’re just starting out and don’t have a business card yet, be sure to let your inner circle know your contact information, and write it down so everything is spelled correctly. If you don’t have a business card yet, carry a nice pen and blank pieces of paper or cardstock with you while you’re out and about.
Here are some other things to keep in mind:
– If you receive messages from your Social Media accounts, activate email notifications so you don’t miss anything.
– If a potential client contacts you through your personal phone number or email, pass along your business information for them to use next time.
– Ensure your handwriting or font is legible and easy to read so no one phones a wrong number or emails the wrong person.
– Set a precedent for when you’ll respond to referrals. Although you don’t want to miss out on opportunities, it’s best for your long-term client relationships if you reply during your designated business hours. Also, be sensitive to their schedule so you’re contacting them at an appropriate time.
– In his article, “5 Public-Speaking Tips From Seasoned Experts,” Jayson DeMers suggests entrepreneurs get comfortable with public speaking. He agrees with Dale Carnegie’s advice to speak on topics that you’re sure you know a lot about.
So, as you’re looking for potential clients, don’t forget to consider the people in your neighborhood that you meet each day. We’ve included an infographic below that can help you brainstorm how to find ideal clients in your local network.
And if you’ve found clients this way for your Virtual Assistant or freelance business, we’d love to hear from you! Please let us know your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.