How to Start a Consulting Business: 3 Steps to Getting Your First Client

6, 2021

8 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The best way to get clients is through referrals. You’ve probably heard that advice before, but it’s not overly useful if you’re just starting out. So, what can you do? Explore the adjacent possible

I’ll unpack that term since applying this principle will be beneficial for landing your first client, and growing your business over the long-term. 

Author Steven Johnson describes it as, “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself… it captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.”

In the case of referrals, your limit is the fact you don’t have any clients to refer you. But, you can still get creative. The main reason referrals work is because a mutual connection vouches for your expertise and character. You may not have clients, but you still know people who can do this on your behalf. And, they may know people who could benefit from your services. 

This brings up another term you may be more familiar with “your network is your net worth”. I’ve surveyed hundreds of consultants, the most common way of landing their first client was through a referral. So, chances are you already know, or know someone who knows, your first client. All you have to do is make them aware of what you do, and they can help them. 

Let’s get started. 

Related: How to Start a Consulting Business: Your One Page Business Plan

Step 1: Get clear on what you do and who you do it for

I covered how to determine your services in the article How to Start a Consulting Business: 3 Steps to Finding Your Idea, so be sure to read that if you need clarity around the value you’ll provide a specific audience. In addition to an outline of your service offering, being able to clearly and succinctly state what you do is the key to activating your network. This is often referred to as your positioning statement — not an elevator pitch — and it should be around 20 words or less. 

Here’s a loose framework to get you started. 

I help (specific audience) achieve (specific goal) so they can get (specific outcome)

And, here’s mine for an example.

I help consultants and professionals service providers grow their brand and revenue without sacrificing their health, family or personal interests. 

Spend some time on this. You can’t ask your network for help if they don’t know how to explain your services to other people. But, by “spend some time” I don’t mean weeks, you should be able to get this completed in about two hours. Done is better than perfect, and you can change it later if you’d like. 

Related: Learn how to package, price, and promote your consulting services

Step 2: Ask your network for help

This next step is easy to understand, but challenging to implement.

You’re about to ask your network for help, so there may be some hesitation. Maybe you’re concerned about looking salesy. Or, maybe you’ve been laid off and you don’t want to look desperate. No matter the cause, you need to push through. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on the most effective business development resource available to you.

After you reach out, one of three things will happen

  • They’ll ignore you
  • They’ll say something along the lines of “I don’t know of anyone right now, but I’ll keep you in mind.”
  • They’ll connect you with someone who may be interested in your services

So, worst case scenario you get ignored, best case scenario you get a lead. It’s highly unlikely they would respond to your email and say “ha ha ha”. If they do, you’ve done yourself a favor by outing them as a miserable person to have in your network. 

Another challenge you’ll face is deciding what to say in your letter. I’m going to remove that excuse by sharing exactly what I sent to my network last year. I did this as a test to make sure the process would actually work and expose myself to the same vulnerability that I ask of my clients. 

“Hard to believe there’s only a few weeks left in 2020! It’s been a challenging year, but I hope it’s winding down well for you. 

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is having my three kids home all day. It’s great being able to see them grow while picking up on nuances I may have missed, but it’s also a lot to juggle! 

In response to my updated working schedule, I’m now solely offering coaching services in a group or online course format. As a quick reminder, I help business coaches and consultants grow their brand and revenue. 

And, as you may have guessed, I’m about to ask for your help!

I’m wondering if you know of anyone in your network who would be interested in learning more about the services I provide.

You can get more information on my website, but to summarize, I help coaches and consultants clarify the value they provide a specific audience, and then attract opportunities that will pay them what they’re worth for this knowledge. 

If you know of anyone who may be interested, I’d appreciate it if you could forward them this email. 

Outside of that, let me know how things are going on your end, and don’t hesitate to ask if there’s anything I can do to support you as well!”

Of course, you’ll want to augment this to fit your own personal experiences and service offering, but you get the point. 

I used a tool called MixMax to create a template for this email. It integrates with Gmail and allows you to quickly add your content at the push of a button. And, although you’re using a template, I strongly recommend personalizing your message. Ask a question about something specific, mention one of their recent social media posts, anything to make this not look like an email blast. 

Again, don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. You should be able to write and send off 10 emails in three hours. I suggest starting with previous coworkers and friends that have access to your target audience.

I should note, you can also leverage the same approach by making your network aware of a social media post or direct message. Here’s an example from Athena Pham, a Digital Marketing Consultant

Related: How to Start a Consulting Business: Determining Your Rates

Step 3: Be completely transparent with any prospects

The best way to avoid imposter syndrome is to not be an imposter. Once you’re connected with a prospect, be very clear about what stage you’re at in regard to your business. Being introduced by a mutual connection already establishes your credibility, don’t mess it up by trying to gloss over the fact you don’t have any clients yet. Instead, offer your service at a discounted rate in exchange for feedback on how you’re doing. 

The discount percentage will depend on your previous experience. If you’ve delivered similar services at an organization in the past, you wouldn’t discount as much. If this is your first time offering these services, discount more.

I know it isn’t fun to get paid for less than your full rate, so think of this as paying for on-the-job training. Which also isn’t fun, but you’ll use this information to build a solid business and brand that will reward you for years to come. And, you’ll be on your way to landing more clients through the referrals you’re about to earn.

If you have any questions feel free to reach to me on LinkedIn or join a live Q&A session.

Ready to start your consulting business? Check out our Consulting Business Accelerator and get going today! You’ll gain access to training videos, hands-on activities and join live weekly Q&A calls.

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