One of the most common questions I get from young businesses is why they don't get more clients, or how they can get more clients. They decided what they were going to do, set up a website, started marketing and landed a client, even two. But the initial euphoria soon wears off as we realise that our website doesn't get the amount of traffic we expected, knocking on doors usually results in a "thanks, but we don't need this right now" and we face the prospect that what we started out with so hopefully is not going to give us the returns we were hoping for. I've been there. I grew up as a software developer and didn't learn anything about marketing, or positioning, or pricing or any of the other things that make a business something we can rely on for income. I priced my services by the hour, hoped that my technical expertise would carry the day and the quality of my work would speak for itself.
It doesn't work. Not for any length of time.
Now that I've been at this for a decade (or more, depending on how you count), and dealt with literally hundreds of solopreneurs, freelancers and small business owners, I've seen patterns emerge. These patterns are not secrets, or even new - but the frenzy of the dot-com world and the lessons documented after that have given us a much better understanding of why small businesses don't get more clients.
Here are the top three reasons I've seen why you're not getting more clients.
Reason 1: They're not interested in our technical expertise
The first, and most common reason, we don't get more clients is because we think they want and need our technical expertise. They don't.
As a techie (a software developer) by original training, I thought that my systems design expertise, bug-free code and my ability to navigate about 15+ different programming languages and multiple different flavours of relational databases would be the thing that set me apart. It didn't.
What my clients wanted my expertise for was to develop a system that could do something for them; in short, solve a problem for them. And almost without exception they expressed that problem in business terms; they couldn't get their orders in fast enough, the project was failing and needed to be rescued, payroll was not calculating correctly, and so on.
It was my technical expertise that gave me the tools I needed to solve the problem for them, but that was not what they were buying; they were buying a solution to a problem.
Imagine that you have a plumbing problem. Do you look for plumbers with specific technical expertise? Do you make sure that they know the relevant building codes, are able to solder copper pipe and know how to tap into steel?
Of course you don't. You don't know their craft, and you're not particularly interested in the technicalities of what they need to do to solve the problem. You just need the problem solved, so you look for plumbers with good reviews, a decent website and something that says they have expertise in dealing with your kind of problem.
So when you present your technical expertise as what you're selling, you should not be surprised when more clients don't come your way. Because they're not looking for your technical expertise; they're looking to have a problem solved. And you're not telling them that you can solve that kind of problem; you're so in love with what you can do that you forget you need to do something for them.
So what can you do?
The answer lies in turning your thinking inside-out. You need to stop thinking about what you can do for clients, and instead think about what kind of problems you can solve for them.
If you are a kick-ass project manager, you can rescue failing projects. Or get culturally diverse teams to communicate better. Or get SCADA projects back on track (or whatever your expertise is). If you're a full-stack software developer you need to stop focusing on your technical expertise and focus on the fact that you can accelerate business growth by delivering apps faster than anyone else.
The point is, you need to stop thinking about what you can do, and instead think of what problems you can solve for your clients. And for that, you have to go and speak to them, listen to the problems they say they have, and decide if you can deliver what they need.
So stop selling your expertise. Except maybe as a list of technologies you're expert in. And focus on the business problem. That's the problem they're looking to solve.
Reason 2: We trust in our websites to bring us business
The first three things you think of when you start a new business is:
- a name;
- a logo; and
- a website.
After we have a name and a logo (this is our new identity, after all), we start building a website. We spend hours and hours toiling away at building a website that tells potential clients just what we're great at, how nice we are to work with and how expert we are.
Then we sit back and wait for business to roll in. But we're not dummies of course, we know that we need to build traffic, so we invest time or money (or both) in SEO, invest in some Adwords and even start a blog.
But the website doesn't deliver. For two reasons:
- we don't get nearly as much traffic as we think we should; and
- when our ideal clients arrive, they only see your technical expertise, not that you can help them with their problem.
Our websites are important, make no mistake. They tell potential clients what we can do for them and establish our authority and credibility. I can tell a lot about how well a business is doing by just looking at their website; a website that is focused on "we're so great, look at all the things we can do" is probably not doing that well. A website that says "we solve X for Y" is probably doing well, or on their way to doing well.
So you need a website, but you have to realise two things:
- if you're small, or just starting out, the chances that you'll get business from someone visiting your website are very, very small;
- your website is where people will go after they've gotten to know about you and what you can potentially do for them; they want to see that you're real and you have something to back up your claims of expertise.
So what can you do?
Build a name
You won't get business unless people know about you. You may not need millions and millions of people to know about you - you need just enough to bring in reliable streams of revenue. But they still need to know about you.
It takes time to build a name to the point where you are the go-to person for the specific kinds of problems you help businesses solve. Until you get there, you're going to have to work hard to get business (because they don't know about you, yet) and you're going to have to continuously build your name. Marketing folks call this your brand.
So how do you build a name, or a brand?
You have to show up, frequently and consistently. That, in essence, is what builds a name and a brand. Frequency and consistency is what gets you known, gets someone to mention your name when they hear someone with a specific problem, and eventually builds reliable revenue streams.
It helps to have a memorable brand. It helps (a lot) to specialise in very specific problems so that you don't have to compete with everyone else or worry about the big companies taking an interest in your niche. It helps to establish yourself as an authority by regularly publishing articles or speaking at events.
You don't have to wait until you are the best-known thing in the industry. You can start today - but you have to be clear on what problems you solve, for whom and why they care.
Reason 3: We're afraid to lose revenue
One of the most effective ways of becoming an expert, becoming the go-to person (or company) for a specific problem, is to niche down. To "niche down" is to specialise in a very well defined and small niche in the market that you serve. There are so many good reasons for becoming an expert in a niche; here are just a few:
- it's way easier for you to identify potential clients;
- it's way easier for them to find you;
- your marketing becomes much more clear and to the point;
- you have less competition; and
- it's so much easier to become an expert in a well-defined niche than it is to be a specialist in a big area (where the big companies are playing anyway).
But still, the majority of small businesses that struggle and ask me for help are afraid to niche down. The reason: they're afraid of losing clients - of losing revenue.
This is not an unreasonable fear. But it is also a fear that can lead you down a slippery slope. Here's why:
When you're struggling to get clients, revenue is one of the things that you need most. So to get revenue you will take on almost any kind of work. It's not always the thing you like doing that much, but heck, it brings in revenue even if you've had to lower your rates to get the work.
So what usually happens is that you have to work longer hours for less money. And in the process you've lost the opportunity to get your ideal clients; the ones that need what you enjoy doing the most, for the kind of money you know you deserve.
So what can you do?
The niche is your friend
You will have to find your specialty - your niche - if you want to build a sustainable business with regular income and enjoy working less for more money.
This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. The biggest problem you will face is fear; the fear of losing potential clients. You can also choose a niche with a limited lifespan; for example relying on your expertise as a FORTRAN programmer (there are still legacy systems that need FORTRAN experts, but they are slowly but surely being phased out).
But without exception, I have found that when someone niches down into a well-defined market area their business takes off. It's one thing to say "I am a business coach," it is an entirely different thing to say "I help construction businesses maintain high growth".
For more information on niching down, read this article.
The top three reasons I've seen why solopreneurs, freelancers and small businesses don't get enough clients are:
- we try to sell our technical expertise when they're looking for a solution to a business problem;
- we trust in our websites to bring us business when in reality our websites are mainly used by interested clients to learn more about us; and
- we're so afraid of losing revenue we'll take on almost anything.
To combat these problems, you need to:
- sell solutions to business problems (with your technical expertise as a footnote rather than the main feature);
- build a name for yourself by showing up frequently and consistently; and
- specialise in a niche where you can become expert, making it easy to identify your clients and for them to find you.
What you can do now
I have a whole bunch of articles on positioning, which is another name for niching down. You can find them here.
If you're a software developer or run a small dev shop, I highly recommend Philip Morgan - he specialises in helping software developers find their niche.
And if you're still billing by the hour, take a look at what Jonathan Stark has to say about it.
And if you need to build a name for yourself, sign up for the Tornado Marketing waitlist; this is a marketing course for people who want or need to do their own marketing. Which is all about showing up frequently and consistently.
And of course, if you have any questions or comments, drop me a note. I'd be glad to hear from you.