Stories about Software


Find Clients and Win Them Over

Ah, the mission to find clients.  Critical for any business, obviously, but especially daunting for the newbie solo consultant or freelancer.  Today’s reader question solicits advice on how to tackle this.

I like your ideas for future topics. I’d love to see more on how to find and win clients. Not just general marketing, but actual sales.

Now, please forgive some introductory digression here.  But I honestly can’t conceive of how to talk about sales without talking about marketing.  Reason being, your marketing (or lack thereof) will heavily influence your sales strategy.

Personally, I don’t do a lot of sales.  At least, I don’t do them in the traditional, numbers game sense.  When I look back over the last couple of years, almost all client-facing work started with clients seeking me out.  The only exceptions included past clients, where sales looks a lot different.

As you might expect, this dynamic heavily influences my sales discussions.  I’m almost always in a favorable negotiating position, not really needing the work.  And the mission to find clients?  I haven’t historically needed to do that a lot.  All this because of my years-long investment in personal branding and marketing.

I say this not to brag, but to illustrate the degree to which your marketing affects your strategy for identifying prospects and pitching to them.  And now, I’ll seize an opportunity to stop talking about myself and start talking about the general would-be freelancer/consultant.  But I will have to talk a bit more about the marketing (though not in the how-to sense).

The Silly Market for Software Work

If you put on a marketer’s hat and look at people selling software development labor, you’ll have a hard time knowing whether to laugh or cry.  I saw this site, recently, called “Code Fights.”  Assuming I understand its charter correctly, it perhaps epitomizes the bizarre market for our labor.  The site encourages you to compete with tens of thousands of people for extremely similar work.

We don’t think anything of this when it comes to finding generalist programming jobs.  But recall how I’ve talked about generalist programming not being strategic.  And if you want to go into business for yourself, you can’t afford to tilt at algorithm trivia and programming competition windmills instead of being strategic.

Think of it this way.  Imagine that someone came to you and solicited your advice on starting a business.  Would you say the following to them?

Here’s what you should do.  Take something that tens of thousands of other companies are doing, and do that.  It’ll be hard to differentiate yourself, but don’t worry.  There’s this website where you can practice by playing games…

It’s so preposterous that I’m going to stop right there because I’m actually laughing as I type it.  In the business world, you don’t respond to market competition this way at all.  Instead, you seek to differentiate your offering in a way that plays to your strengths.

Play to Your Strengths

Spoiler alert.  No matter how much you sharpen the saw, you won’t become the best at programming.  You may think I’m selling you short, but I’m not.  What does “best at programming” even mean?  We, as an industry, can’t agree on tabs or spaces, let alone what “best” would mean.  And even if we could agree, what would it matter?  I doubt anyone would accuse McDonald’s of making the best cheeseburgers in the world, and yet it manages to turn a healthy profit.

McDonald’s plays to its strengths and it differentiates itself from other food options.  Want a serviceable burger really fast, anywhere in the world?  That’s us.  Sure, it has some competition — but it’s not trying to compete with everyone that knows how to make every kind of food.

So the first thing you need to do is engage in just enough marketing to understand how to differentiate yourself.  Start with an old concept called the 4 Ps of marketing and work on a unique value proposition to offer customers beyond “I’ll show up and turn specs into code.”  Identify an actual business problem that you solve.

Otherwise, You Sell Via the Job Interview

Why do I harp on this?  Because your alternative makes it easy for me to answer the question, “how do I find and win clients?”  If you just hang out your shingle as a generalist programmer, that’s easy.

You find clients by looking on Monster.com or whatever, and you win them via the dog and pony show of a job interview.

You can find and win clients without a website, conference speaking experience, or established content marketing presence.  But you can’t win them without enough marketing to let you establish a differentiating value proposition.  When you go to sell, you need something to sell other than “miscellaneous developer labor.”

So for the rest of the post, I’ll assume that you have that, and I’ll talk about how to find clients and pitch to them.

Define Your Ideal Client

Once you’ve decided what specific itch you’ll scratch and how you’ll differentiate yourself, don’t just pick up the phone and start dialing.  Instead, you have to think about your ideal client.

It seems we can’t escape the marketing stuff.  Most of the information you’ll find on the subject of ideal clients comes from marketing sites.  But wherever you find this information, it’s good stuff.  You need to get a really tangible image of who might buy from you.

I’m not talking about saying something like, “CIOs” or “decision makers at financial firms.”  You need to get to the point where you call your ideal client Jerry.  Jerry isn’t a real person, per se, but he should feel real to you.  Figure out what job title he has, what he does in his spare time, how many kids he has, and what his biggest frustration is at work.  Seriously, go through this exercise of persona creation to make your ideal buyer/client as tangible as humanly possible to you.

This will let you start to think about outreach and pitches in a meaningful way.  Should I go to this upcoming user group?  No, a lot of techies go, but Jerry probably wouldn’t attend something like this.  Should I send Jerry an email?  No, he gets buried in email and would be much more likely to take a phone call.  You get the idea.

Find Clients by Finding Jerries

You may define more than one client persona — more than one Jerry.  In fact, you probably should.  It’s pretty likely that more than one type of buyer would have reason to engage your services.

Once you have these buyer personas defined in principle, you can set about actually finding them.  For your first wave, examine your own network to see if you personally know some.  You almost certainly do.  Think of old colleagues, former bosses, clients of your old employers, etc.  Expand beyond that by perusing LinkedIn to see whether people that like you know second degree connection Jerries.  You can ask for warm introductions.  Don’t just ask people to refer you to “anyone that might be interested” — you’re giving them homework when you do that, making them a lot less likely to bother.  The onus of finding Jerries falls on you.

This will supply you with plenty of leads.  Reaching out to colleagues and securing warm introductions makes conversations pretty likely, compared with cold outreach.  But when you introduce yourself, and when you have those conversations, make sure to keep your momentum.  Avoid the temptation to start blathering about yourself and your accomplishments.  Instead, talk about them and pains they might have that you think you can help with.  Empathize and put yourself in their shoes.  You’ve gotten to know Jerry pretty well.  What would he want to hear?

Pitching to Clients

I’ve segued into this a bit already, but sooner or later, you’ll find yourself making pitches.  We’re now getting into territory that isn’t exactly my forte.  I’ve done pretty minimal cold outreach in my life, and I am not at all persistent with leads.  I’d honestly rather have a somewhat lean month than pester a bunch of people, so you can imagine that I am not the ideal sales guy.

I can speak to this in generalities, however.  You do the best with sales when you understand relative leverage.  In short, you want to put yourself in situations where the prospective gig means more to them than it does to you.  Absent that, you want to at least create that appearance.

Because of this, my non-pushy nature actually bolsters my leverage.  Be genuine and make it clear that you’d love to help, but don’t seem like you need the work (even if you do).  I also recommend that you start trying to help them, even in a discovery call.  Toss out some advice freebies and make it clear that you’re not a low margin hourly lawyer, looking to run the clock in 30 second increments.  Instead of leading with terms and formalities, dive into helping them solve their problems.  “Let’s just talk through some stuff and make sure that this will be worthwhile for you before we worry about money,” is something that I’ve found prospective clients appreciate.

And remember, be helpful but not desperate or obsequious.  You’ll feel temptation to reduce rates or make concessions to win business.  Resist that.  Help them, leading with some value for free, but don’t give in on terms.

Play the Long Game

I’ll wrap with one last piece of advice on the sales side.  You can bolster your negotiating position by keeping the long game in mind.  You’ve spent time identifying your unique value proposition and positioning yourself to deliver it.  Go in with confidence that you’re delivering something your prospective clients need.  They aren’t doing you a favor with the contract — if anything, you’re trying to do one for them.

Having this confidence and belief will improve your prospects during the actual sales conversations.  And it will help you remain resolute if they try to nickle and dime you or wheedle scope or price.  But it will also equip you for business down the line — the long game.  If a prospect decides not to do the contract or decides to go with a competitor, assume they’ll revisit that decision later.

Don’t actually say something petty along the lines of, “well give me a call in 6 months when you figure out you’ve made a mistake.”  Just assume they will do so, and hold no grudge.  “Cool, this will probably turn into business in six months.”

When talking to clients and prospective clients, it really should be all about helping them find value.  And if the client would be better served by not doing the work or by going with your competitor, then you should steer them in that direction.  When you do this, you usually wind up with their business over the long haul.

If you do a good job finding and offering a unique value proposition, both marketing and sales become a whole lot less slimy than we’re used to.  Marketing helps clients understand what you do and want to call you up to offer you work.  Sales, then, just becomes a matter of agreeing when to start.

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And, by the way…

If you like the wisdom here, such as it is, you can get a whole lot of that more in my recently released book, Developer Hegemony.  If you want a sample of that, you can sign up to download some chapters below.

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Aaron Zalewski
6 years ago

I really like the content Erik has been posting lately. I’m in the same independent consulting realm and his experiences are mine. Same struggles to define value proposition. Same concerns about work pipeline and managing the client side of our trade. I wish I had this insight 5 years ago.

Great advice!

David Stiennon
David Stiennon
6 years ago

This seems like very sound advice! Thank you, Erik! It’s been clear to me for a while that programmers need to become salesmen after a fashion to succeed at job interviews, whether or not we own our own business I’m starting to think that in a similar way, ALL programmers need to learn marketing, whether or not we own our own business. After all, building useful software is largely a matter of discovering who your users are, how to provide value to them, and how to communicate that value This makes me suspect that the leap to marketing our own… Read more »