A few weeks ago, Cole tweeted a great followup question to Episode 23 of the podcast:
@brennandunn question re: Ep 23: How would you advise someone break into a new specialty if they only have general work in their portfolio?
— Cole Hooey (@colehooey) April 22, 2015
Whenever any discussion around niching or breaking free of general purpose commodity work comes up around here, I almost inevitably get questions like Cole’s. So rather than trying to answer the question in bursts of 140 characters, I told Cole I’d think through my response here on DoubleYourFreelancing, along with some sundry thoughts on specialization.
A quick recap of why specialization works
A recurring theme of mine centers around the risk that we as freelance consultants bring to the table.
Each project has a risk of failure. This risk goes beyond what we generally assume risk to mean (that is, our inability to create what we’ve been told to create). A project’s risk includes a number of other criteria:
- Are the requirements for this project actually going to solve the underlying business problem?
- Can this root problem even be solved?
- Has this problem existed for others, and have they been able to solve it? Have they done something similar to the project we have on the table to do that?
All of these questions, and more, are usually floating through the minds of your clients. They’re unsure about whether they can scale this mountain in the first place. Unfortunately, we usually aren’t given and don’t care to see the bigger picture; we resign risk to the technicals.
When a specialist comes into the picture, he or she is able to overcome many of these risks by virtue of showing that they’ve done it before. Like a harbor’s pilot, they’ve been through these channels many times.
Therefore, at the root of any discussion about specialization (that is, niching yourself), is the promise that a strongly niched service is easier to sell, more valuable for the buyer, and more profitable for the person selling the service.
How I talked my way into a new specialty this week
But if you want to cater to a particular niche by offering a specialty service, you probably should have a track record in serving that vertical — right?
Sure. But you might not have that luxury. Cole doesn’t, and I don’t when talking to many of my prospects.
Earlier this week, I was talking with a new lead in the executive recruitment industry (this is for my new agency that I’m now starting to scale). After I Socratically questioned him and started spitballing what sort of financial upside he could expect after working together, he asked an honest question:
“Have you ever helped a business like mine before?”
He wanted to know if I’d worked in the recruitment space before. It’s all well and good that I’ve helped software companies, startups, and a large swathe of small businesses make more money — but can I help him make more money?
If there existed (and he knew of) an off-the-shelf product or service that promised “more qualified corporate leads for recruiting agencies,” he and I wouldn’t have been talking. He’d have hired whoever offered that.
But I posed some risk, because everything he knew about me didn’t include any track record in the recruiting space. I hadn’t mentioned that I’d solved problems just like his before, so he had every right to question whether or not I was cut out for his project.
You’re probably wondering how I responded, right?
How did I take this valid objection and make it work?
How did I break into the recruiting industry niche?
“You’ll be my first client in this industry, but that’s OK.
My job is to generate product and service leads for companies. That’s what I do best, and that’s what I’ve been doing for my clients. You know the recruiting industry inside and out. You’ve been in it 20 years. As we begin to dive into the details of your project and setup a Roadmap that will help us prioritize what we’ll be working on, you’ll fuse your expertise — running a wildly successful recruiting industry, and knowing a ton about the needs and wants of people who hire companies like yours — with what I do best — acquiring qualified leads, and nudging them toward the point of hiring you automatically.”
Rather than letting the risk of “holy %@!, this guy has never worked with anyone like me before” persist, and potentially derail the project, I instead diffused it. I made his experience my experience. I took control of his doubts.
Why I wanted to share this story with you
I know how hard it is for some people (myself included, circa ~2008) to go beyond being just an order taker and sell yourself in much the same way that you used to sell to potential employers.
Replying on your toes with something like what I said above doesn’t come naturally, and it’s taken a lot of discussions with prospective clients to get good at this.
You know what would have helped me avoid all of this? A case study, landing page, or whitepaper that detailed my history of serving the recruiting industry that I could have sent him before we met. But I’m not there yet; this is a new industry for me.
Ultimately, this is why I think it’s important for you to take your experience now and think about how you could distill each project you’ve worked on into a case study or even a full blown, strongly positioned niche. The experience you gain doing this will help you get better at thinking on your toes about how you can specialize and serve a new industry.
Remember that the purpose of sales is to present a product and overcome any valid objections that arise in the mind of the prospective buyer.
Your lack of experience is a valid objection, but it doesn’t need to disqualify you. You need to think of how you can turn your inexperience into something good. Leverage the experience your client has in their space. Tie in your past experience in solving someone else’s problem with the problem you’re being brought. Demonstrate your confidence in your ability to deliver results.
Writing a kick ass case study gives you not only another arrow in your sales and marketing quiver, but forces you to think critically and comprehensively about what you’ve done in the past. It equips you with data points and references that you can use in your next sales meeting.
And creating a strongly positioned sales letter or webpage helps you relive the sales experience of a past client (or clients) of yours. What problem brought them to you? What objections did they have that kept them from hiring you right away, and how did you solve them? What did you deliver to them, and what did this end up doing for them?
These exercises, even if they don’t immediately win you new work, flex your sales muscles. They’re also added to your ammo store, pre-written content that’s readily available to be forwarded on to a new lead when opportunity knocks.
Write case studies of your past projects for yourself.
Create whitepapers or webpages that target a niche market to build your confidence.
And let the fact that the result of these exercises are typically pretty awesome at helping you get new work be a happy side-effect.