When you leave the traditional workplace to pursue a freelance career, your newfound autonomy and flexibility come with an added pressure: sourcing your own clients. Now, you are responsible for sustaining enough work to provide for you or your family, and that can certainly feel intimidating. Knowing how to market yourself and successfully pitch to new clients is a crucial tool in your professional arsenal.
Paro sat down with fractional CFO Craig Schwimmer, who has found remarkable success as a member of Paro’s network of elite finance experts. Schwimmer provided his advice on how to make a pitch to potential clients—and how to do it confidently.
How to market yourself: self-promotion vs. building relationships
A 2021 global freelancer study conducted by the Agile Talent Collaborative and the University of Toronto found that while a majority of freelancers were confident in their work ethic, adaptability and creativity, they were less confident in their networking abilities, business connections and persuasion skills.
It’s easy to equate your success with your ability to promote yourself. But selling your value is a hard skill that takes practice, and for many, it can be a nerve-racking experience. To take some pressure out of the process, avoid thinking about the pitch as a sales presentation. Look at it as an opportunity to partner with someone in the long term.
Schwimmer chooses to approach his business in this way. “I never market myself. I tend to keep relationships,” he says, “and that’s really important.” Instead of self-promotion, Schwimmer approaches pitching as a two-way dialogue to foster relationships that he aims to grow over time.
But to initiate these relationships, you have to start the conversation through your pitch.
Create a pitch using the right elements
A successful pitch has four important elements that are designed to catch the client’s attention, acknowledge their pain points, solve their problem and set up a line of communication.
Decision makers are busy. Among the many phone calls that they take throughout the day, how will your call break that barrier and leave an impression? You need to make the impression count.
One way to do that is to get personal. Schwimmer says, “I always try to develop some understanding of the person as an individual. I’ll interject something about their location, try to break down a barrier and make it more familial. I have that person understand that I’m treating them like a person.”
By finding a commonality, you’ll have something that connects you and the client throughout the process.
Next, you want to identify the client’s problem. It’s important to remember that potential clients want to talk about how their business can thrive, and therefore, knowing how to market yourself means understanding the client regarding both their project needs and their hiring needs. “I like to have a few questions to understand where they are intellectually and emotionally in the process, and any difficulties or challenges in making decisions,” says Schwimmer.
Understanding that the client may be under stress, he also offers some reassurance. “I try to help them understand that while they have a problem that is unique to them, other people are facing similar obstacles.”
Once you have properly identified the problem, you can move to the most important step.
In many situations, the problem you’re working to solve has several layers. If the question they’re asking has multiple levels of complexity, Schwimmer says he’ll “break it down” for the client. That way, the client can also get a better understanding of their problem and the resources or scope of work that it will take to solve it.
But sometimes the solution is not what the client is expecting—or what they want to hear. “I don’t say it’s not going to happen. I explain to them why it’s not going to happen and that you may want to set your sights on something different,” says Schwimmer.
Regardless of the solution, your explanations and justifications for that solution must be logical, comprehensible and clearly communicated.
The call to action
This is where you tell your potential client the precise action you want them to take. This could simply be an email response or a follow-up call. Or, it can be an agreement. However, don’t create too much pressure. Schwimmer states, “Don’t expect to necessarily get the project right away. It takes time to make decisions. [The client] may not have the budget or may need to consume what you’re saying amidst 50 other things. Be supportive and be there for them.”
Additional tips for a successful client pitch
The elements of a pitch will provide you with a foundation for speaking to the potential client. But there’s more to a pitch than the four-part structure. Other elements, like soft skills and personal demeanor can also play a role in whether or not you win the client.
The following tips provide additional ways to strengthen your pitch:
- Research the client thoroughly. “You can never be too prepared,” says Schwimmer. In fact, if he has scheduled a 30-minute meeting with a potential client, he will conduct 30 minutes of research. For an hour-long call, he’ll prepare for an hour. “I tend to look at if they have public relations materials, and I go on their LinkedIn site and do a Google search.”
- Clear your headspace. Schwimmer advises not to schedule other calls right before your pitch. He likes to clear his head beforehand and keeps a glass of water at his desk in case he needs to pause during the pitch and collect his thoughts.
- Change how you measure success…and failure. Avoid measuring success or failure by whether you get the assignment. Instead, measure success or failure by whether you were able to communicate effectively.
- Don’t dwell on the past when approaching new clients. Schwimmer states, “I never let previous successes or failures influence my behavior on that pitch. I never think that just because I’m on a streak that I don’t take this one as an individual opportunity.”
- Pose a question. Open-ended questions can help your audience engage in dialogue with you. The more one-sided the conversation, the less likely your audience will be completely engaged in what you have to say. Ask questions that get the client thinking and stretching themselves creatively.
- Don’t base the fit off of one phone call. When judging whether a project will be a good fit, don’t be too quick to judge. Know that how someone communicates at the time of the pitch may not be how they are at all times. They may be dealing with the loss of a key team member or a family emergency. It can take more than one call to get to know the client and their communication style.
- Define your niche. The more precise your services are, the more likely you’ll be hired to deliver those services. If you have particular industry expertise, let the client know. Schwimmer likes to set the tone by giving people a background of similar challenges he has tackled that are relevant to the client’s industry.
- Be upfront about your requirements. Be honest about the hours that you have available and if you must work remotely, but don’t create the perception that you could be difficult to manage. Your ultimate priority should be the client.
- Remain professional. Avoid coming off as distracted or uninterested. Make the person on the other end feel as though you take the opportunity seriously and are invested in their outcomes. Schwimmer says, “There’s nothing worse than texting somebody or doing [other] things during a call. I’ll wear a collared shirt if it’s a Zoom meeting. You have to remember, this is somebody else’s livelihood. It’s their family.”
- Be respectful. Treat the potential client with absolute respect regardless of the situation they’re in. Schwimmer says, “A lot of people get in situations, and it’s not their fault they’re in those situations. No question is too silly or too trite. I take it as a learning opportunity both ways.”
- Find opportunity in smaller projects. If a client is only able to provide 10 hours of work each month, don’t take that as a loss. “Prove your medal,” according to Schwimmer, by creating additional value for your client that can turn into a much greater engagement down the line.
Ultimately, learning how to market yourself should be seen as an empowering activity, rather than a stressful one. Schwimmer concludes: “Have fun doing this. You’re creating a world that gives you a little more flexibility than others have. You can diversify your risk by not being embedded in one single company.”
Paro understands that finding clients and building your business can be challenging. Joining Paro’s vetted network of fractional finance experts allows you to access projects, pitch to clients and manage communications with dedicated support throughout the entire journey.