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Marketing a One-Person Business

By Marty Nemko

When owners of one-person businesses get together, they spend an awful lot of time focusing on one question: “How do I get more customers?”

Here are some thoughts:

The best source of new clients is your old clients. Periodically, I call past clients to ask how they’re doing. That provides me with useful feedback, and often, without my having to ask, they’ll say something like, “I know a friend who should see you,” or “I really should come in to see you again.”

Still need more clients? Choose one or more of the following tools:

One-on-one schmoozing. Some people are naturally good at this. They’ll hand out business cards in the supermarket line. They won’t think twice about cold-calling dozens of professionals who might refer clients to them: “Wanna do lunch?” Personally, I hate schmoozing so I’d never use this strategy. Use the marketing strategies you enjoy.

Presentations. There are infinite opportunities: libraries, church groups, singles groups, professional conferences, service clubs such as Rotary, etc. In presentations, share your very best ideas. That will increase your chances of getting referrals, and simply feels good. Even more important, as they say in screenwriting, show, don’t tell: give a sample of what you do. There’s no better way to convince someone they should hire you. That’s one reason why, at most of my presentations, I do three-minute career makeovers: I ask audience volunteers to describe their problem, I then ask a series of questions, and by the end of three minutes, I’ve usually come up with something helpful.

Writing. I found that writing an occasional article doesn’t generate clients. People need to see your work on a regular basis. It’s okay if your column is in a small publication, as long as potential clients or referrers read the publication. So, consider industry or professional magazines and newsletters. Again, give away your best ideas.

Once you’ve gotten a prospective client to call you, your next task is, where appropriate, to convert that call into an appointment or sale. I usually start by asking the prospective client, “Tell me a little about your situation so I’ll be in a better position to tell you if and how I might help you.” I then listen very carefully to try to understand what they’re really looking for. If I feel I can help, I very briefly describe how I envision working together. I end with, “Would you like me to tell you when I have openings for new clients?” They nearly always say yes. Finally, I tell them I’ll be e-mailing them directions to my office plus a new-client questionnaire to work on at home so we can hit the ground running.

If, in that phone call, I feel I can offer a bit of free counsel, I do so, even if it takes a good few minutes. If that’s all the help they need, they’re deeply appreciative. More often, that few minutes of free help isn’t enough, and having provided that sample of how I work, they’re more likely to want to make an appointment.

Marketing doesn’t end when the client makes an appointment. At the end of each session, if I feel an additional session is necessary, I outline what I plan to do next and only then ask, “Should I look in my book to see when we can get together next?” That phrasing feels comfortable to most clients.

Of course, marketing rarely can make a bad professional successful—that would be like putting lipstick on a pig. But thoughtful, diligent, ethical marketing can make the difference between a marginal business and a successful one.

* * * *

Without discipline, there is no life at all.

Katharine Hepburn, 1907-2003

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