Even if you are embarking on your freelance career right out of school, you have years of academic experience and internships. Everyone reading this post has an existing network of contacts where they already have established know, like and trust in some way.
But then what? Do you just wait till that happens to turn into business?
Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and someone in your network will hear about the right opportunity for you, think of you for it at the right time, and recommend you in the right way that gets you hired. But, as you can see, even in that simplistic example, three discrete things have to go exactly right for that kind of sales serendipity to occur.
More likely, it is you who needs to proactively identify the right opportunities, proactively get in front of people who can help you, and proactively coach your supporters on how to recommend you or otherwise help you land that project.
The good news is that you have a bigger network than you think and therefore already know people who can help you get more business. The caveat (this isn’t bad news, but it does mean additional work) is that you still need to do things beyond just getting your contacts to know, like and trust you. Here are 5 steps to land business from people you already know.
Decide exactly what you want to ask for
Before you can ask people to help you, you have to be crystal clear about where you need help. “I need projects!” is not a specific enough request.
Do you have a target company identified but don't know specifically who hires for the work you do? Do you have that decision-maker identified but need a better sense of how s/he makes hiring decisions? Do you know who hires and what the RFP process is but lack a well-timed and well-placed reference so they actually look at your proposal?
As you can see, there are multiple ways to ask for help. The burden is on you to know exactly where you need help and ask for that specific thing, not just help in general. You need to help people help you.
Take an inventory of who you know
Do not rely on your memory to identify people in your network that you can go to for help. You might think that if you can’t remember them easily you don’t know them well enough to ask for help. But this isn’t necessarily true.
Go line-by-line through your resume to recall past colleagues and classmates. Don’t overlook that short assignment 10 years ago where you have fond memories of your team. Yes, you will have to rekindle that connection, but this can be done more quickly than you think, and if they have as fond memories of you, they may quickly become supporters.
Recognize that you know more people than you think
If you think about networking for sales specifically, the ideal contact is someone who is WILLING to help you and ABLE to help you. These are the contacts most freelancers fixate on when trying to identify sales leads in their network.
Pitching a web design project to John Doe Printing? Most people automatically think, “Who do I already know (WILLING) in the marketing group at John Doe Printing (ABLE)? Or at least in marketing? Or at least in the printing business?”
However, your contact base also includes people who are willing, but not able. Say, a good friend from college who is now a banker at Goldman Sachs (very willing, but nowhere near web design or printing).
Your contact list also includes names you’ve seen as you research companies to target. For instance, you might know the name of the person making web decisions for John Doe Printing, but you don’t that person at all (very able, but not yet willing).
In both of these cases, you still might be able to get their help. For the Willing but not Able, figure out if there is something you can ask for that they can help you with. Your banker friend might know someone in printing, or even John Doe specifically if you were to ask directly. This is why asking about a specific company or department or person is so much more fruitful than asking for help in general.
For the Able but not Willing, you could work on making them more Willing by reaching out (yes, that’s a cold call but a targeted one), by following up to expand and deepen the relationship, by essentially bringing them into your network.
Tailor your approach based on your existing relationship
Depending on whether you are approaching people who are Willing and Able, or Willing but not Able, or maybe Able but not yet Willing, you need to use a different approach.
For the Willing and Able, you are confident that they will help you if they can, so when talking with them you must be clear about how they can help.
Do not assume that even close friends know exactly what you do, what services you offer or who your ideal client is. You have to tell them. Do not assume that if they truly wanted to help, they would just refer you on their own. You have to remind them. Do you spend the majority of your time thinking about how you can refer business to others? People are busy and will not think of referring you on their own.
Do not assume that they have the language to represent you in the best light. You are the expert in what you do, so give them a quick story of a client success that is easy to repeat or forward them a few short bullet points about you so it’s easy for them to refer you.
For the Willing but not (yet) Able, you want to confirm that they are indeed not Able. Remember, you don’t know what specific people they know. Maybe if you broke down your request into smaller chunks, they might be able to help you with a piece. So in the case of John Doe Printing, you might ask in general about printing companies or similar size companies or web design decision-makers, whether in printing or not.
For the Able but not (yet) Willing, you have to develop rapport and ultimately a relationship. When you first contact them, be clear about who you are, why you are contacting them specifically, and why they would want to talk to you. You need to be more than just a great web designer, but specifically relevant to printing companies and even more specifically to John Doe Printing.
Follow up in a generous and non-committal way
The best networking occurs when you aren’t asking for something. In the above steps, you are driving towards a specific request. But we all have that one person in our life who only reaches out when they need something. We dread when that person’s name comes up on Caller ID or that email address shows up in our Inbox. If you only network by asking for something, you brand yourself as a taker, and eventually people will stop helping you.
Instead of focusing your needs, you want to focus on the other person (generous) and without any request (non-committal). This includes remembering that someone likes fusion cuisine and forwarding the name of a new restaurant you heard about, congratulating someone when their company is mentioned on the Best Places to Work list, or sending a holiday greeting. There are many opportunities for generous follow-up without a request.
Clients hire you when they know, like and trust you. Many freelancers focus on the “know” part. They attend networking events to meet lots of people. They join professional associations or attend conferences to be seen as current in their field. They focus on getting cited in the media or increasing their website traffic so people hear about them.
But after you meet people, you need to move beyond “know” to “like” and “trust” by following up and building a genuine relationship.
This deepening of initial networking leads is a critical step because a single introduction doesn’t lead to actual business. You need to be in front of people multiple times, ideally in a generous and non-committal way. Then you need to know how to help your network help you.
So, ask yourself: Who will I reconnect with in my network today? What do I need right now? How will I frame my request? How can I add value to them first so I'm seen more as a giver than I am a taker?