Sure, it’s great when unexpected clients come my way, but I find there’s no substitute for making direct overtures to the people and companies I want to work with. That means sending e-mails to strangers and, yes, often picking up the phone and calling them.
On one of my calls, something serendipitous happened. I didn’t find work. Instead, I found a mentor.
It began when I was writing a report for a market research firm. When doing my background work, I happened upon a website that invites consultant-panelists to contribute their comments on issues that were relevant to my topic. I phoned one of these consultants—I’ll call him John—to give me some insight into what I was writing. As a source, he was smart, insightful and helpful. I quoted him in the report.
The core of my business is marketing copywriting, but one market I’ve been exploring is doing writing for consultants. I’m looking to help them with projects such as white papers, case studies, and thought leadership articles, which I already do for clients in other industries. After that market research report project had ended, I called John to present my services to him.
Nothing came of it at first. I keep track of every time I call or e-mail a prospect, and my early notes on John indicate that he didn’t have much of a need for my services but still showed some mild interest. That reaction happens often, and in these situations I simply move on to the next prospect but try to make a point of following up every few months or so.
One day, John was on my list of follow-up calls. Like most times, I was expecting to leave a voice mail or to have a quick conversation if my contact picked up. But after John answered, he began to ask me questions. We didn’t talk about what writing projects he might want to hire me for but instead about what characterizes good writing and communication in general. Our conversation ended up lasting a full hour. Later, John e-mailed me some websites to critique, and we discussed my opinions on a call some days later.
At the end of that call, we scheduled another one, and then another. For over a year now, John and I have developed a pattern in which we talk around every five or six weeks. We start each session with a few minutes of friendly banter and then get down to business on our topics of the day.
What are these topics? As already mentioned, we’ve discussed the characteristics of good communication. He’s also given me business advice. We’ve talked about ways I can present myself as someone who solves client problems, not just as someone who handles writing projects. We’ve discussed how I can sell my services through conversations instead pitches. He’s illuminated these points by describing his own client-acquisition process, which takes a long view instead of going for the quick sale. Our conversations can also be rather philosophical and free-ranging, touching on topics like human relations, empathy, and the nature of wisdom.
Considering that he seems at least a little older than I am and that he is one of a handful of partners in a firm of 200 people, he seems well positioned to give me advice. I’ve said I think of John as somewhat of a mentor, but I’m not sure if he’d describe himself in that way. We often delve into subjects that are important to him or relate to projects he’s working on. He seems to value my insight and opinions. In some ways, he might consider me a peer.
One thing John is not (at least not yet) is my client. John is more of a friend now than a prospect, so I feel it would be out of place for me to press him for work.
I continue to follow up with the quality prospects on my list and reach out to new ones. In these efforts, I often send quick e-mails for efficiency’s sake, but every so often I make a point to pick up the phone and call. If I keep an open mind and look for opportunities to engage with the other person, I know that I might have a conversation that leads somewhere unexpected.
Has anything like this ever happened to you?
Henry Alpert is a New Orleans-based copywriter and business writer who works with design studios, ad agencies, and companies’ in-house marketing departments. More information about Henry can be found on the website for his company, Action Copy. Also, check out his blog The Awkward Adverb, a periodic look at substandard Standard English.