The phone hardly rings anymore, your Web traffic counter stays unchanged unless you visit your own site, and that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach doesn’t go away when you shut down the computer for the evening. If these symptoms sound familiar, take solace in knowing you’re not alone: These are the sure signs of the gravy train chugging to a halt, and the gravy trains generally don’t run as frequently, as fast, or as loaded as we might like when the economy slows.
Operating in lean times is no fun, that’s for certain, but any creative who has worn through a few portfolio cases over the years can attest that down markets come and go. And you certainly don’t have to let lean times beat you down. Here are a few techniques that for years have been the proven tools of business development — and a few new techniques to boot.
1: Talk to Your Clients
Many things in business have changed, but the “80/20 rule” still applies. Eighty percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your clients. Your best prospects for new work are with the clients you already have.
Call up your clients and ask what other projects might be on the back burner or what new projects may be coming up. Ask questions, offer helpful insights, and make sure to relay your availability. No hard sell here, just a “call me when you’re ready.”
If you have the time, pay your clients a personal visit. Even in our wonderful world of e-mail and virtual white boards, a personal visit remains the most powerful relationship builder you’ll find. If you’re in the town of even a minor client, make arrangements to stop by to say hello and shake a hand. That’s how salesmen get insignificant customers to become significant ones.
2: Make “Warm Calls”
It’s a rare creative type who likes to make unsolicited telephone calls, but to get prospects, sometimes you have to, well, do some prospecting. Remember life as a newbie? You had to make cold telephone calls. Luckily, you’ve been in business for some time and thanks to your thick address book, cold calling has turned into warm calling.
So fire up your contact-management software and start calling people you know (at least the ones that won’t hang up on you) — clients, vendors, colleagues, and college chums — until you get to the bottom of the list. Strike up a conversation, and don’t be afraid to ask for referrals, even casual referrals. Then follow up on those as well.
Warm calling can be a tedious and time-consuming experience, but so can worrying about having no work. If one warm call leads to one significant job or new client, all your warm-calling efforts have been worthwhile.
3: Search the Online Job Boards
A slew of online job boards cater specifically to the creative fields. They all work a bit differently, but basically they’re designed to connect clients with service providers. Some boards are free, others charge a subscription and/or percentage. Virtually all allow you to browse through full-time and/or freelance positions as well as requests for proposals, and some allow you to post your resume or portfolio on site for clients to review.
The list is long, but spending a slow afternoon exploring the sites should help you identify which might work best for you.
- Creative Assets
- Creative Central
- Creative Freelancers
- Creative Hotlist
- DesignSphere Online
- MediaStreetAnd of course there’s creativepro.com’s own Freelance Exchange, through a partnership with Bullhorn.
One caveat: You’re wasting your time if you approach these sites haphazardly. The trick is to find a site you like and then to stay with it long enough to become intimate with its workings, and perhaps even to show some staying power. And once you understand well how a site works, visit it often so you can react swiftly to new RFPs. It often takes a serious time investment before the payoff begins.
4: Network, Network, Network
The list of networking possibilities online and off is long. You may already be attending meetings at local ad clubs and graphic arts groups. Don’t overlook Chamber of Commerce meetings and other boring business gatherings where polyester rules. And of course, there’s the trade-show circuit where many a contact can be made often serendipitously.
Online, get back on those graphic arts bulletin boards that once were so popular and poke around other industry-specific boards in the industries you work in regularly. Add your two cents to discussion threads, and you’ll be amazed at the conversations you can strike up (some scary, for sure).
You can network even more proactively by teaching seminars and workshops. It’s unlikely that potential clients will come to your classes, but just having your name in course catalogs can help. And teaching adds a certain legitimacy to your resume that can be helpful down the line.
Networking is not a selfish technique. It’s a two-way street. And you can be a friend simply by clipping articles you come across and sending them to people you know. Send a lot of birthday cards or call people out of the blue when something reminds you of them. Give genuinely to the people you know, and good things will come back to you. Karma is still cool.
5: Get Some Publicity
In case you haven’t tried to do so yet, it’s pretty easy to get a mention in your hometown paper. Draw up a short press release to announce a new service, award, or contract. Throw in a picture of yourself, and chances are you’ll see yourself on the local business page.
Trade magazines and newsletters are always looking for contributors. Declare yourself an expert and write an article about design or marketing, or whatever your expertise is — as it relates to the trade magazine’s field of interest. Even if you do it for free, you’ll have another piece to add to your portfolio that shows you are more than just a wannabe-artist. Publicity begets publicity and before you know it, you might have journalists calling you for interviews.
6: Don’t Get All Depressed
A down market is a terrible ordeal, like being shunned at a high school dance or rejected for a home loan. The antidote is to stay active, more active even, and to constantly find ways to market yourself. Be industrious and chances are something will pay off.
And, if by some cosmic curse, still nothing comes your way, create the art you love, if for nothing more than to remind yourself why you got into this business in the first place. Renewal doesn’t have to come from money; that’s the benefit of being an artist.
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of Eric J. Adams’ column, “The Art of Business.” The column, which will run every other week, will primarily address freelancers and small design shops. Adams will cover business development, client relations, and a gamut of other issues facing creative professional in an ever-changing marketplace.