Lesson 6: Finding Customers

What You’ll Learn: Finding a steady stream of high-value customers and clients is the golden ticket of the creative world. Unfortunately, it’s far easier said than done because, in this connected world of ours, the latest and greatest is always just a few clicks away. Hopefully, when you’re done with this lesson, you’ll have a few more proven ways to fill that pipeline.

Finding Customers (continued)

Making a Splash

Knowing that you have customers is one thing; finding them is another. The world is filled with noise. Everyone has something bigger, better, brighter and fancier. Our minds are filled with product sales pitches, yet few stick. Even though we hear thousands if not millions of messages from a business selling us something, we still don’t become their customer. Or if we do, we are eventually drawn to another product with even more promises to make us look better, be more popular, become cooler or live the life of the rich and famous we hear about so often.

The question remains for a creative who runs a business: where is my customer? The customer who wants just what I have and is willing to pay for it. The one who will tell others about my talent and who will continue to buy from me and not some Johnny-come-lately who has a cheaper knockoff.

Many creatives toil away on their craft, figuring that their talent and skill will gain an audience. This belief is akin to being the tree that falls in the forest, the one no one hears. It’s far better to be the sawmill than the tree. You need to be heard loud and clear. You need to stand out from all the flotsam and jetsam clogging up the marketplace. You need to be valued by creating value because if you don’t, no one else will.

Lessons Learned

I had to learn this the hard way when I started my company. I had been unceremoniously downsized and didn’t want to go through the trauma and drama of having that happen again.

My first customers were former co-workers from the companies I had worked with, along with several retailers who knew me from when I worked in public relations for a grocery wholesaler. They hired me when others wouldn’t even take a call or open a door.

And therein lies your first potential customers – people you’ve worked with in the past. This works best if you have a direct connection to actual business needs. It can be event planning, writing, video production, graphic or web design, media relations, etc. If you are great at the tech side, you could get gigs programming, coding, designing user interfaces of apps; the list goes on. If you’re an actor, painter, or other creative that doesn’t directly track into the corporate world, you can always think of other places that could use your talents and skills, even if they are temporary, short-term, or a gig.

Let the jobs come to you. The Internet offers excellent ways to get work and build name recognition. You’d be surprised at the wide variety of jobs places like Guru.com and Upwork.com post on their sites. If you’re just starting out, building a portfolio on these sites can quickly lead to additional work opportunities.

These two sites provided half of the income coming in through the door at one point. All it took was a good pitch (covered in Lesson 8) and a competitive bid. You come to learn that the pitch is more important than the bid. Initially, it’s tempting to low-ball a bid to get the work, but business people aren’t always anxious to accept the lowest bid because they think it will lead to lower quality work. The best part with these and other gig worker sites is that the money is guaranteed to be there. Money is placed in escrow, so you know that there’s money to complete the project. And, if things go awry, the site becomes the arbiter.

Tap your network. We all have friends, family, co-workers and extended networks we’ve connected with over the years. See if any of them have leads for you that could lead to business. Be specific in what you’re seeking. Even family members who have known you for years may still not understand what you do for a living. Explain what you’re offering and who an ideal client would be. Then let them noodle that around and offer up any leads that come to mind. Don’t pressure them at a party or family gathering. Let them think for a bit and ask them to text or email any leads they may have.

Stalk your customers. Not in a creepy way, mind you. A great way to gain new customers is to find where they connect with others and hang out. You don’t want to start selling right off. Instead, you want to provide the audience with knowledge, expertise, suggestions and insights that establish you as someone who should be listened to. Be friendly, be pertinent, be polite and don’t push your wares. Eventually, you can introduce some sales to the party, once you get a lay of the land and see what the cultural norms are, whether it’s a gaming forum or a Facebook or LinkedIn group.

Draw an audience. This means different things to different people, especially if you are a caricaturist. What we mean by this is that you want to get people interested in what you’re doing in your creative world. You can do this through blog posts, a podcast or YouTube video, a donation to a high-profile charity auction, a live performance of your band; the list is virtually endless. Getting yourself out there among the public, or more important, in front of your target audience, is a good way to get your name known and build an audience.

Offer something no one else does. The unique and unusual will get people talking and sharing more than almost anything else you can do. Think about a problem no one else is solving or a new trend that few, if any, are attending to. Seize the space and make it your own. Be the first to market with something that addresses an unmet need. A good way to do that is to continually monitor what’s going on (and isn’t going on) in the world. Connect dots that haven’t been connected yet. Blend what’s been done in the past with what you see gaining traction in the future. Innovate and be different.

Be different, be proud. This may sound a bit scary since you also have to put your creativity out there, but people are naturally drawn to people who stand out a bit or a lot. You don’t want to be so far out there that you’re perceived as a risk to do business with. Continually experiment and test ideas with your inner circle and see what sticks. Prototype with abandon and build on what works. Your creative mind should love this type of work. Indulge it.

Charge a premium. As a new business, this sounds like a risky move. But if you’ve done your research and segmented your customers, you may find that one segment is willing to pay a premium for something that is perceived as trendy, provocative, rare, a limited edition or a one-only, or created by an up and coming creative. Studies have shown that when offering three wines at different prices, consumers will gravitate to the most expensive one, even though the wine inside was the same, only the labels were different. So having a premium price can be a signal that your work is of higher quality or status.

Tell your story. We’ve covered this in the lesson on Marketing, but there is only one of you. There’s never been someone like you before, and not after. You don’t need a bullhorn to attract your ideal client. A dog whistle will do just fine, and the right customer will hear you loud and clear. Be authentic, put yourself out there, and don’t be shy about showing that you are human. Tell your story. Let others see themselves in your journey. In doing so, they will more likely see your work the same way. They will identify with it and become big fans as a result.

Get others to tell your story. A testimonial will be a brag any time. See if any of your customers want to talk about your work, their experience working with you, how they love what you’ve done and the tremendous value you added to the project. Share these on your website, as social media posts and user groups (when appropriate).

Be simple, smart and sexy. The market is saturated with competition for the attention of your customers. Think about making your business an Apple instead of a PC. Make it super simple to work with you. Be smart in what you offer and make sure the target audience understands the value of choosing you, regardless of cost. Become something of a status symbol in the mind of your clients.

Under-promise and over-deliver. Offer tremendous value for what you offer, but make sure you under-promise a bit. You want to surprise your client with things you didn’t promise but planned to deliver anyway as part of the project. For instance, you could come in for less cost, take less time, deliver something way more remarkable than the client agreed to or even thought possible, or offer to teach the client who to display the project, operate it or use it.

Let’s look at this last strategy in a bit more detail. People are starving for personal connections and interactions that are genuine as we enter the endemic stage of COVID.

This can include:

Personalizing experiences. Learn everything you can about your customers and do everything you can to personalize their experience with you. Meet them wherever they are in their journey. Some will want to go back to face-to-face interactions; others will want to remain remote. If you’re returning to on-site events, think of ways you can interact and involve those who aren’t there in person. Being patient, reaching out and following up more than you used to may shift the thinking of your most ardent critic in your favor.

Bringing back the personal touch. Customers may be a bit more demanding than they used to be. Customers have endured months of being anonymous to those who interact with them. As they make their way back into the world, make sure they are welcomed with a friendly smile and, if possible, use their name if you know it. Focus on them as an individual. Even as you add a personal touch, don’t be overly anxious to eliminate alternate business models that they may have come to appreciate, such as home delivery, Zoom meets, virtual webinars or Twitch sessions.

Communicating clearly and often. Customers need clear communication, whether it’s by phone, text, Zoom or in person. Ask the customer or client how they would like to communicate and then use that channel to stay in contact with them. Don’t make the rookie mistake of sending a text at 9 p.m. or calling as soon as you start work at o-dark-thirty.

Being transparent. As things begin to return to normal, there will continue to be disruptions to supply chains in materials and suppliers. If you have staff, you may experience shortages as the workforce finds its way. Don’t hide this from your customers. If a project is delayed because of a problem on your end, be candid about it. Don’t let the customer think they aren’t important to you or that you aren’t meeting agreed-upon deadlines. Customers will understand. What they won’t understand is poor service, quality or lack of availability if they are left to their own imaginations. They may just go elsewhere.