A few months ago I had the opportunity to visit northern Vietnam for 5 days. On my last day there, I met Tung, a freelance tour guide. To find work, Tung spends time in an open park by a high end hotel where he meets tourists and engages them using a well-practised (and effective!) pitch.
If you are a freelancer or consultant, you know that finding clients is a key factor in the success of your business. There are three parts of Tung’s process that you can apply to your own strategy for finding clients; he was in the right place, he started by building rapport, and he established credibility before making his pitch. Tung’s approach was much more effective than those of the typical vendors I encountered.
For most vendors, selling their products or services is a numbers game. They price low and hope that you are in the mood to buy when you happen to encounter them. These vendors know that there will be crowds of tourists passing them every day; they can make enough money to survive by selling to even a small percentage of this traffic.
If you’ve tried finding work on oDesk or a similar job posting, you’re using this technique. When you list yourself on sites like oDesk, you’re just another vendor, offering the same product as competitors. You aren’t able to differentiate on the service that you offer, so you have to differentiate based on price, leaving you to fight it out in a race to the bottom.
Tung did things differently, he knew who his ideal customer was and had staked out the best spot to find them.
Tung was in an open, public area, near a high end hotel, away from the chaotic bustle of a typical street. By intentionally placing himself there, Tung knew that he was directly in the path of foot traffic from visitors with money to spend and that the open, low traffic nature of the park meant that he would be seen and acknowledged when he said hello.
As a freelancer, you need to put yourself in the path of potential clients, in a venue where they will stop to acknowledge who you are and pay attention to what you have to say.
Being around the type of people that you want to work with will allow you to learn what they are looking for and how to talk to them about it; this may be a physical location, or an online community.
To stand out, you need to step outside of the crowds of people hawking the same wares you’re trying to sell. Imagine heading down a street filled with 30 fruit vendors. How are you going to pick? At best, you’ll buy from one person; however, too many choices leads to indecision and the majority of people will probably not buy there. This is analysis paralysis, anxiety brought about by abundant choice. If making decisions creates anxiety, it will be easier for the consumer not to make any decision if they are forced to choose between too many.
In Tung’s case, he was in an open, empty space of a park, so when he said hello, he got our attention. We didn’t have to decide between him and somebody else and as a result, we listened to what he had to say.
You need to get away from oDesk profiles and job board postings where you’re just another faceless vendor in the crowd. In our industry, listing yourself like this creates analysis paralysis for the client; the only way you can differentiate yourself from other freelancers is by being the cheapest possible option. The buyer will become overwhelmed and either choose the lowest cost solution, or make their decision elsewhere. Being a low cost solution may seem like a successful way to find clients, but for you, this approach inherently can only lead to more work for you, for less money.
Instead, find out where your ideal clients like to spend time, either online or in real life, and then spend time hanging out there. If you’re in the right place, you’ll be able to get the full attention of these people and won’t be fighting as much competition.
After Tung said hello and asked where we were from and what we did, he asked a few questions about our country. He may have only known four facts about Canada, but he used them to start a conversation with us without triggering our “keep moving, this guy just wants to sell us something we don’t need” sense.
Typically, vendors lead with the sales pitch - “Please?” they ask as they motion towards whatever it is that they’re selling. We say “no thank you,” and move on.
Imagine if everyone you met, everyone that had even the remotest chance of giving you work you said “Please?” to and waved your portfolio frantically in their face? Instead, what if you were to ask them how they’re doing and ask a few industry specific questions about their business?
The first example is the same as saying “I’m a [developer/designer/copywriter/etc], do you want to hire me?” It shuts down conversation. There are only two answers to the question: yes and no. In this type of situation, it’ll usually be no.
In the second example, you’re building a relationship. You’re not someone desperate for work from their perspective. You’re interested in getting to know about them, who they are, what their problems are. Relationships are a vital factor in the success of your business. Building a relationship leads to a long-term investment — maybe the potential client doesn’t need you right now, but guess who they’ll call if they need some help in the future? Not any one of the five, scared looking developers who wouldn’t let them enjoy the cheese platter at the conference lobby in peace. They’ll call you.
By asking about us first, Tung made us feel like he was more interested in our interests than his own. He put a higher priority on us as humans, rather than cash dispensing tourists. Instead of just saying, “No thank-you” and moving on, we stopped and chatted with Tung, simply because he put us and our interests before his own.
Once we’d exchanged a few bits of conversation, Tung let us know that he was a tour guide, but instead of outright asking us if we wanted him to take us around, he said, “Look at my book.”
Inside the book were emails from people he had guided around the country, all sounding very positive. He showed us pictures of himself with other people who looked like us and photos of him with his family. “This is my wife,” he said proudly, pointing at her.
In an unknown country, picking the right tour guide or set of activities means the difference between a great trip, (seeing beautiful areas and experiencing the culture) and a miserable/boring trip, (getting ripped off, or herded around with all-inclusive tours).
As a freelancer, my clients are similar to myself in Vietnam on vacation; they are adrift in an unfamiliar culture and language. They don’t know the details about how to build an effective piece of software, or a website that can sell their product. If they pick the wrong tour guide, they end up getting ripped off with a solution that doesn’t meet their needs, or a boring, mass-market implementation.
We can establish trust with our potential clients by showing them our past work and testimonials from satisfied clients. Without these elements, a client would be taking a gamble on our capabilities, similar to picking a tour guide at random in Vietnam. You don’t know if you’re going to end up with something great, or if you’ll get a crappy deal.
After looking at a few pictures and reading his emails, we said goodbye to Tung. Our flight was leaving in a few hours and we just wanted one last coffee with condensed milk in traditional Vietnamese style.
In the end, the timing wasn’t right. We didn’t need a tour guide for the day, but the experience was memorable because it was so different from what I’ve become used to while travelling. Also, if I’m back in Hanoi, can you guess who I’m going to contact if I need a tour guide or want advice on travelling?
When you’re meeting potential clients, you’ll have a similar experience. Most people won’t need you right then and there, but when they do, you’ll be ready for their call.