Meet Your Future Partners  

Your fabulous new embossed business cards have arrived. You've groomed your personal profile online. And you've just gone broadband bananas so you can be sure not to miss out when you're busy online and all those telephone calls, begging for your services, come flooding in.

Brilliant. Time to sit back and wait. Right? Wrong. However great you are at whatever it is that you do, business won't gravitate towards you by the sheer forces of nature. You have to go out and get it.
The offline net
As an independent consultant, or freelancer of any sort, there is always more you can be doing towards ensuring the flow of future work.
Networking is one crucial and ongoing activity that every self-employed person must do to find business, bring it in and keep it coming. And one cornerstone of networking is the referral meeting.
A referral meeting can be any kind of contact with someone in a position to refer business to you. Whether it's a formal office appointment or a brief chat at a social do, the aim is the same. To let other people know what you have to offer, while learning from them about contacts and connections that could help your business to grow.
Network means legwork
Rather than meeting with people who can hire you directly, referral meetings tend to be with those who have leads to the people or organisations that might hire you.
This can be more time efficient than your trying to pursue individual potential clients, as referral sources can spread the word about you to more potential clients than you could get to meet by yourself. It expands your business effort without the effort. Also, they will hopefully know the right people to target with their referral. (Something you can't always gage before you've wasted time and energy traipsing across town, or towns, to meet someone who turns out to be a non-potential client after all.) It's like having a sales rep promoting you while you concentrate on the creative side of business.
Saying that, referral meetings can still be a toil. The success rate they produce is often a mere fraction of the legwork you have to do to achieve it. Several dozen meetings might yield just one or two potential jobs. And even then, it could be a long time before those briefs actually come in.
Everyone knows that freelance is famine or feast. What's important is that you use your famine times to get out there meeting potential referral sources and working to bring the next feast to your table.
Relate yourself
Before any referral meeting, you of course have to prepare. If you don't know the person well, you must get to know them through a little research. Consider their line of work so you can talk about your own business in a way that is meaningful to them. Bear in mind their level of knowledge in your area. Don't use jargon that they won't understand and don't over explain something that they will.
The sales pitch
You are in this meeting to promote yourself, so be articulate about what you have to offer. Focus on selling the benefits of your service, not the features. Instead of describing what you do and the skills and tools you use to do it, talk about the end results of your work: how your service can improve people's businesses, increase their profits and encourage repeat custom. There's time later to get into the details of how you operate.
Present yourself in stereo
Good presentations combine both words and props. And people will want to see evidence that you can actually deliver. So take to the meeting something visual to back up what you say. A portfolio is a must, whether it's a hard copy or online. Brochures and flyers also convey a professional image, although you don't want to overwhelm someone with reams of paper. Equally, involved laptop presentations are a bit much for a one-to-one meeting. Simply take along enough to present yourself as a polished package.
It's an idea to follow up the meeting by sending any additional material that you didn't give in person. Not only does it add to an otherwise brief thank you note or email but it makes a good indication that you intend to deliver (to future clients) everything you spoke about.
If your work doesn't involve any tangible product that you can take to a referral meeting, then you'll have to rely on description. Talk about previous projects you've worked on, real stories of accomplishments. Written case studies or client testimonials would be your best bet in this case.
Make it work both ways
Much as you are a creative rather than salesy person, this is still a mild game of PR you're playing here, and there are certain rules you should follow if you want to stay in it. We're not talking blatant schmoozing. Rather a simple case of running a two-way street.
Cultivating a relationship with your new ‘friend' demands a genuine effort to stay in touch. True networking is give and take, so don't even think about developing a professional rapport unless you're willing to give as much as you get.
It's a partnership
Every so often, remind them who you are and what you offer, remembering to find out how you can be of assistance to them. Tell your referral source about a feature that might be of use or of personal interest to them, be it a book or article you've read, a website you think is relevant or an event they might want to attend. Send them updates on your services and successes, an email newsletter or a pointer to developments on your website.
Where appropriate, you might even give a professional courtesy discount, offering your products or services at a reduced rate to the people who are particularly supportive of your business. And always show your appreciation for any referrals they do send your way, especially if they result in business for you. Send a small gift or take your referral source out for lunch or drinks.
Okay, so this last one is slight schmoozing. But we're all only human.

 

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