Friday, April 5, 2013


Not long ago, I was asked to serve on a panel of marketing experts. The moderator asked us all the same question: "If you were to give one piece of advice to independent professionals about how to get clients, what would it be?"

One expert advised the audience to build a massive email list. Another claimed that search engine visibility was the best answer. A third named social media as the ideal solution. My answer was something quite different. "Talk to people," I said.

The most effective approaches to marketing professional services all center around live, human-to-human conversations. Experts who advise relying on technology-based solutions to marketing are missing or ignoring many essential factors. Here are some examples of what I mean:

1. Building a massive email list and sending out regular promo blasts is great if you are selling ebooks or workshops or home-study courses (as many of the people who recommend this strategy are doing themselves). But how many clients per year do you, as an independent professional, actually need?

There are some professionals who need many clients over the course of a year to have a successful business -- chiropractors, for example, or a life coach who gives regular workshops. But it's much more common for a professional to need fewer than 20-30 clients each year. For that, you don't need a massive list; you need a handful of strong referral sources and a collection of likely prospects who you keep in touch with personally.

Publishing a newsletter or emailing updates to a selective roster of contacts makes sense. Spending time and money to build a huge email list usually doesn't.

2. Search engine visibility can be useful when clients are likely to seek out a professional like yourself online. Psychotherapists, for example, can get clients who prefer to keep their need private by searching online instead of asking for a referral. Attorneys who specialize in areas like personal injury or divorce can get business online when their clients have an urgent need for help.

But for most successful professionals, the majority of their clients come from referrals, networking, and professional visibility activities like writing, speaking, and volunteering. Visibility of their website to search engines is a secondary source. And, it's often a source of inquiries that never become paying clients, because the searchers are shopping around for the lowest price.

Putting effort into ensuring that your website positions you as a credible expert, and that clients can find you when they're looking for you, is definitely worthwhile. Paying a search engine visibility firm to get you a higher rank is most likely wasted money.

3. Social media can be a valuable source of clients for an independent professional, when used effectively. But the catch is how much effort it takes. Maintaining an active social media presence requires constant attention. You must build a network of followers, post regular updates, respond to posts and messages from others, and keep up with the frequent changes to the platforms you're using.

If social media takes 80% of your marketing time -- or of your marketing budget, when you pay for help to use it -- and then produces only 20% of your clients, it's not worth engaging in. Maintaining a current profile on LinkedIn with a couple of strong testimonials may be all the social media presence a professional needs.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against making appropriate use of email, online visibility, or social media to find clients. But relying solely on approaches like these to build a professional services business is often an expensive mistake. You have to include talking to people in your marketing plan.

There are many ways to talk to people. You can attend local networking events, contact people you already know and tell them what sort of clients you are seeking, speak in your area of expertise for organized groups, have coffee with colleagues, chat on the phone with prospects, and much more.

Every one of these low-tech, high-touch approaches will be a more efficient use of the typical independent professional's time and money than any of the high-tech solutions mentioned above. It's not that high-tech means bad marketing. Technology-based solutions can be terrific for people who regularly need high numbers of new clients, or sell classes and products in addition to their own services, or have the time and interest to be constantly online.

But if that's not you, it might just be time to walk away from high-tech and start relying on high-touch instead. Make some phone calls, set up some coffee dates, attend some events. Use email to send personal notes instead of generic marketing messages.

Try this -- spend the majority of your marketing time over the next month talking to people instead of staring at a screen. Then see if you really want to go back to technology-based marketing. By then, you may just be too busy with clients to have time for it.
Copyright © 2013, C.J. Hayden

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