How to find clients in a recession

5 min
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Almost regardless of the maturity of their service, the UK’s smallest businesses say the challenge of finding new clients in this recession is keeping them awake at night.

In fact, aside from cutting costs, exactly how they go about attracting new orders, contracts or commissions is now the biggest worry for owner-manager companies.

A Lloyds TSB poll adds their other fears relate to demand and the recession’s length - two concerns which would no doubt ease if they weren’t so worried about new leads.

To this end, award-winning creative freelancers, joined by the UK’s leading small business groups, have shared their tips on how to find new customers in a recession.

Stretch and flex outside your comfort zone

While creative freelancers tend to excel in a specific area, they have more room than permanent candidates to be flexible in the work they pursue. They can effectively ‘de-specialise’ by looking at roles outside their self-set work preferences, or offer just one service, such as proof-reading, which they would normally price as part of their overall service, such as editing. These less-specialised roles can be good ‘gap-fillers’ for your portfolio and CV, effectively serving to head off potentially awkward questions from a prospective client about periods out of work.

Just as freelancers in a recession should be prepared to step outside of their comfort zone for the type of work they pursue, freelance PR specialist Rona Levin said they should also be flexible about the locations they consider. The increasing availability of workers is already resulting in clients being more fastidious in their selections and taking longer to finalise them, partly due to having to sift through a larger number of CVs. It is therefore even more important that the freelancer or consultant willing to travel tells their contacts, clients and, if applicable, their recruitment agent, Levin said.

Keep above the parapet and show you are thinking

Keeping in contact with past agencies, clients and contacts either through impromptu or regular emails, or calls, is a must, says digital consultancy Callender Creates. Its founder Jim Callender, who uses Twitter to search for jobs and sound off on industry issues and memes, said it helped to let others know you remain at the cutting edge.

Another consultancy said it produces a blog posting, partly based on unused material for clients, about three times a week and emails it to former, current and prospective customers.

Freelance trade group the PCG said freelancers could keep themselves in a potential client’s consciousness by simply sending them a link to news or trading reports pertaining to their business. Levin even endorsed writing a “extremely gentle appraisal” of a potential client’s website; alerting them to an award they could win or making another proportionate sign to “show you are interested” in their business.

She added: “While these [steps] won’t [necessarily] create work they will certainly keep you at the forefront of their minds in a highly-competitive environment, so when an opportunity does come up your name should certainly be in the frame.”

Beat big business by flexing your ‘small’ strengths

Budgets for marketing are often the first to be slashed in a recession, as bigger, more established businesses focus solely on their bottom lines by cutting costs, according to the Forum of Private Business. However, this can be an opportunity for smaller businesses to step into the void and offer their bespoke products and services, said FPB spokesman Phil McCabe.

Meanwhile, the PCG said that, more immediately than their much larger counterparts, one-person businesses can offer a little free time under a ‘special deal’ with loose conditions. “This generates a lot of goodwill and you’ll find that more often than not, your client will end up spending more than the hour or two you give away for free.”

The group added it was now “more important than ever” to focus on “providing added value to your client base” to help keep your income stream healthy.

John Brazier, PCG managing director, explained: “This isn’t about being some flakey networker that spams clients with fluff; it’s about doing your best to provide your clients with some real benefit from knowing you. The more genuinely valuable you are to your client base, the better off you’ll be.”

Prioritise quality over your one-off, quantity marketing

Marketing in a recession needs to be cost effective and focussed. Using modern communication tools, such as the internet, is important, but the most effective way is through an existing customer base, the FPB said. But this does not necessarily mean trying to sell more volume to your customers, the forum noted, rather it requires “understanding the particular characteristics” of your markets and “targeting your spending accordingly.” ”Recommendations - whether posted on chat forums or passed over the garden fence - remain the most important factor in the marketing mix for small firms,” Mr McCabe said. “Good customer service and, wherever possible, strong testimonials - perhaps in local newspapers - are key to spreading the word.”

In a recession, the PCG said the freelancer’s portfolio was their strongest selling tool. “It can demonstrate your successes and highlight your experience and expertise, giving your prospective clients confidence in your work. Look on yourself as a product that is continually developing and evolving and regularly needs refreshing.”

As a result, the group said freelancers may want to invest in a publicity, advertising or digital campaign, which, if executed properly, should bring in new business. “You may have just relied on word-of-mouth or agencies to find you work [until now],” Mr Brazier said. “Don’t. Try a new way.”

Make an honest assessment and know your place

Freelancers who take the above steps without a return are encouraged to review their position in the market; assess their strengths and weaknesses; understand where and with whom they fit best, and rate their business against the competition.

“You can then reposition yourself accordingly and decide what you can offer now in terms of price, customer service and terms of business,” the PCG said. “Positioning yourself just right is key in these uncertain times.”

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