In a perfect world, clients would just find us and we wouldn’t have to do anything except turn in a beautifully-designed project, collect the accolades, and see our client lists grow. Unfortunately, even for top-quality professionals, achieving steady client growth is sometimes the most difficult.
I was fortunate to launch my design firm coming out of a large firm,having worked on some large campaigns. But while my design credentials and background were strong, I had considerably less experience in developing a client base. I had to learn a few things along the way, most importantly: learning how to truly network. It took time and practice, but I did gain a few friends and clients along the way.
Three tips for building a solid network
So how do improve your networking skills and the exposure they bring? Three main areas in which you can focus your efforts to help you get started are your support, information and referral networks. We’ll explore each of these below:
1. YOUR SUPPORT NETWORK
Take a look at your support network, also known as friends and family. Most of us overlook or underestimate this asset. Family and friends are usually happy to help, and their connections might know a business that needs a designer. Social networking sites such as Facebook are a great way to maintain connections and keep you and your professional side on the minds of those in this social group.
2. YOUR INFORMATION NETWORK
Next is your information network, or the people you know. Every person is a connection. Keep up existing contacts and keep the list growing. You should always carry business cards everywhere you go, and I mean everywhere. The grocery store, your kids’ birthday parties, the bar at happy hour, Starbucks, the list goes on and on. My skeptical mind was proven wrong when I met one of my best clients at a four-year-old’s birthday party. I have since met people and contacts in the most unexpected settings.
Within the information network, there are a few areas you can focus on. For example:
Your old buddies from that old job.
Before you left your last job to become your own boss, you had other jobs. Most likely some of those people have moved on and are now at other places. They are advancing in their careers and more likely than ever to be in a position to purchase services, or be asked for recommendations. You should track them down and tell them you are on your own now. It might feel awkward at first to call someone with whom you worked with four years ago, but most people are eager to meet up and see how they can be of assistance. Always remember those people know other people.
Just because you have finished a professional relationship with someone doesn’t mean they can’t be of further professional use to you. Assuming you have finished a project with flying colors, you have an opportunity to go back to that client and ask him/her to refer you to other people. Even better, maybe they can introduce you to other contacts in his/her industry. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful networking tools available. One important note here: It is best to talk to your former clients right after the project is completed so as not to lose the momentum. People get busy and move on to other projects so you might not on their direct radar for long.
3. YOUR REFERRAL NETWORK
The last networking group is your referral network. This refers to people you know, or might know, who are not in direct competition with you, but share a similar business arena. Some examples of these are:
List groups for different industries.
This is often an overlooked power source, but it is a good one to tap into. List servs/groups with professionals who hire designers, such as communications or marketing professionals, are an excellent source of contacts and information. Often these individuals are more relaxed and casual when posting comments and it can be easier to establish a connection. A good way to get invited into these groups is through a connection that is part of the group. Sometimes former clients or newly met acquaintances are the way in. When they host networking events, it will be easier to attend.
LinkedIn groups are a relatively easy way to access information and contacts for different industries. While I do think designers should join design related groups, their alma matter and so on, some of the best contacts come from local small business groups. Join a local networking group, such as a marketing group and get in touch with people who seem of interesting to you. You might not get work from any new contacts right away, but if you follow some of the discussions, and add comments, you might be able to eventually meet these people in person.
Connect people you know with other contacts.
They say the more you give the more you get. This also applies to networking. If you learn that one of your contacts is looking for a specific professional in another industry, and you happen to know someone, by all means put the two and two together. Most people will remember how you did them a favor, particularly when their need for a designer comes in. Only recommend people you trust or know of their professional capabilities. You don’t want to burn your direct and potential connection. You can do this through e-mail, LinkedIn, or even on an online group.
While all of the above are great ways to improve your networking skills, you have to remember to think of networking as a partnerships and connection opportunity. Don’t just give people your business card along with an elevator speech, tell them how you can help their business. If you play it well, you might get a new client for life.
Bonus: A few Networking Online Resources
Below are a few simple links to help you begin networking with other designers, potential clients, and more:
Networking Event Finders www.networkingeventfinders.com
Yahoo Groups –specific ones are available for different areas and locations www.yahoo.com
MeetUp Groups –specific ones are available for different areas and locations www.meetup.com