The Crazy, Labor-Intensive Technique We Used to Get Our First Clients
Editor’s Note: In the new podcast Masters of Scale, LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman explores his philosophy on how to scale a business -- and at Entrepreneur.com, entrepreneurs are responding with their own ideas and experiences in our hub. This week, we’re discussing Hoffman’s theory: To scale, do things that don’t scale.
When we started Whitestone Partners, we knew that we could help small business owners and budding entrepreneurs to grow and scale their organizations profitably. After all, we had years of successful experience working in various industries in roles that included operations, finance, HR, marketing and others. Unfortunately, we faced two problems. One, we didn’t know how to sell our services and two, we weren’t known in the small business community.
We needed to get our proverbial foot in the door, so we sought out help from several seasoned consultants. Their advice to us was to network. At networking events, we should exchange business cards and set up meetings to have coffee and discuss how we could help each other. This sounded like a simple plan, and we gave it our all.
Over the next four months, we attended dozens of networking events, exchanged hundreds of business cards and had coffee, drinks, lunch or breakfast with more than 250 individuals. Regrettably, these meetings resulted in exactly zero clients for our new consulting business. We needed a different way to sell our services. Networking and coffee meetings didn’t work for us.
This is when we had our epiphany: None of the people we were meeting with could buy our services. We needed to develop relationships with the owners of small businesses. Unfortunately, almost all of the people we were meeting with were sales and business development people. While we enjoyed chatting with them, they couldn’t hire us. Some of these people worked for the business owners we wanted to meet, but it is hard to refer a consultant to your boss. Telling your boss that he or she could use a consultant is a bit like telling a person that he or she could benefit from a plastic surgeon.
No, we knew we needed a different way to meet and develop relationships within the small business community. We knew that cold calling was pointless. That is when we developed what we call “research marketing.” If we were doing research for a book about how to run a successful small business, would the owners of these companies give us an interview? They did. Over a nine-month period, we interviewed more than 100 small business owners about what it takes to grow a successful company. The result of these interviews was our first book, Let Go to Grow.
The interviews and subsequent book increased our standing within the small business community and led to our first clients. We started speaking to groups, writing a weekly column in our local paper and eventually for Entrepreneur.com. What started as a way to introduce ourselves to key small business owners in our community became the catalyst for our thriving practice and so much more.
We have taught the research marketing process to others struggling to gain a foothold in the professional services market. Before you think that this cannot work for you, you don’t need to write a book to use this technique. You can be researching something much shorter. You can write an article, a blog post or a white paper. Perhaps you are developing a speech or a presentation. The point is to be researching something that needs the expertise of the person you are interviewing.
Let us walk you through an abbreviated example illustrating how you could use research marketing to secure four face-to-face meetings by writing an article.
Develop an article idea in your interviewee’s area of expertise. Next, it is preferable to have a warm referral to gain the first meeting. This is where your networking contacts can come in handy. Ask your contacts whom you should interview and if you can use the contact's name when requesting the interview. When calling the interviewee, promise that this is not a sales call and that you won’t print anything identifying him or her or the organization without approval. Most will accept the meeting. If a prospect declines, ask if you can contact him or her when you are writing a future article.
Interview prospective clients for your article -- you want to tap their expertise. Ask the same set of questions to each interviewee. Remember, the first meeting is about them. The interviewee is the expert. This is not the time to show your knowledge. Do not make this a sales call. Even if someone asks about your services, schedule another meeting to discuss that, and move on.
At the conclusion of the interview, ask if the person can suggest other people for you to interview. People will provide names because you have made the interview process fun. Ask if you can use his/her name when requesting the interview. Next, ask if you can speak with him or her prior to publishing to present your ideas and get feedback. Most will agree.
Once you have the necessary content, outline your article. Schedule a second meeting with those who agreed to provide feedback. Your outline should be crisp, clear and short -- no more than a few pages. In this meeting, you’ll position yourself as the expert and continue to develop a relationship.
Write the article. You must do this or your credibility will be shot. Quote those you’d like to serve. Schedule a meeting with each person you are quoting to get approval. You promised to do this when requesting the interview. Most will take the meeting, but if not, remove the quote. Keep your promise to get approval.
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Publish the article. There are many newspapers, magazines, and online publishers. Most are looking for well-researched, well-written and thoughtful content. While you may need some persistence, you should be able to get your article published. When others read your article, you’re positioned as an expert with a broader group. Invest in quality reprints. Sign them. You may want to frame or laminate them. Ask the people you quoted for a brief meeting to deliver a signed copy.
You are now positioned as an expert with those you have interviewed. You’ll have had four meetings with them. They’ll have read your work. It may even be hanging on their wall. Stay top of mind. Put interviewees on your newsletter mailing list. Ask them for quotes for future articles. You’ll be the first person thought of when a service professional is needed.
We don’t interview hundreds of people any longer. However, we stay very active in the small business community in our city and beyond. Today, our clients come to us through referrals, speeches and through the SEO generated by the content we continue to write. Research marketing was a crazy way to get our first clients, but it worked. One final thought: You have to be good at what you do -- very good. If not, no amount of marketing is going to yield a successful business. Marketing may get you an initial gig, but repeat business is dependent on the quality of your work and the value delivered. However, to get the initial assignment, you’ll need to be top of mind when a potential client needs your skill set. Research marketing is one technique that works.