So far in the Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer series, we’ve been talking about all of the things you’ll need to do to get ready for launching your e-Learning freelance career. Now that you’ve gone through all of the phases of preparation, it’s time for the rubber to meet the road: so let’s talk about April’s theme, finding clients and winning contracts. In this post, I’ll be sharing both the process I use for drumming up new business, as well as the venues and techniques I leverage to make sure I always have steady work.
Creating a Sales Pipeline
One of the key challenges of being a freelancer is that regardless of how busy you are at any given time, you’ll need to be continually searching for your next project. When you’re in the middle of working with a client on a project, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that once the project is complete, you’re going to need more work. As a freelancer, you’ll always need to be thinking about the present and the future—and the longer you put off searching for your next gig, the more likely you are to have your income come to a grinding halt once your current project finishes.
This is where the concept of a sales pipeline comes in. Sales pipelines are often used by (surprise, surprise) salespeople, but since you’re your own sales department, you’ll need to leverage the idea as well. A sales pipeline is a defined series of stages that organize the steps of turning potential business into actual business. Typically, the pipeline stages are like this:
- Make initial contact with the client. In this stage, you’re reaching out to prospects to determine if they have any projects or business needs that you can meet.
- Qualify the client. In the qualifying stage, it’s your job to determine if the client’s work is a good match with your abilities, values, and needs. (This stage is a good opportunity to compare their potential work with your core values, to make sure it’s work that you want to take on.)
- Meet and discuss. Once you’ve found a potential client that is qualified, the next step is to meet with them and discuss project specifics. This is your opportunity to examine all aspects of the job: Is their time frame reasonable? Do you see any potential for scope creep? Does the client have reasonable expectations? The more you learn in this stage, the better—and remember, this is your last chance to walk away from a project that isn’t a good fit for you!
- Write a project proposal. Writing strong project proposals is an art form, and something I’ll be discussing in detail in a future post. For now, make sure your sales pipeline includes adequate time for you to write a project proposal—remember that it’s a contract, and your only opportunity to set important guidelines such as when payment is due, or what work will be considered out of scope.
- Close the deal and get a signed contract. In this stage, you’ll be working with your client to negotiate and finalize your project proposal / contract. Make sure you’re budgeting time for this step, and verify that any timelines documented also work with your sales pipeline (I told you that would come in handy!).
Simple, right? Well, like a lot of the topics we’ve covered so far, some of the simplest ideas can be the most challenging to execute. The sales pipeline is a model for you to keep track of your potential opportunities (in sales-speak, your “leads”) and continually monitor how close you are to securing new work. The tough part isn’t understanding your sales pipeline stages; rather, the tough part is being diligent about tracking your pipeline and making sure you’re going through the same steps with every potential client. As you begin to work with a pipeline, make sure you’re thinking about key questions like:
- Am I timing upcoming work based on my projected availability?
- Am I following all of the pipeline steps, or have I skipped any?
- Is the work I’ve booked for the future too much, too little, or just enough?
- Do I need to be spending more time to find new leads?
As time passes, you’ll gain a better understanding of your own timelines, and how many projects you can be working on at once. Don’t be discouraged if you make mistakes in your first few months of using a sales pipeline—part of the journey will be determining the right amount of work you can take on, and the right amount of effort you’ll need to put toward finding new business.
To help you get your own sales pipeline started, I’ve created a template for you to use. (Notice that I use separate tabs to track various aspects of the pipeline.)
How to Use Your Sales Pipeline
So what does a sales pipeline look like in practice? For me, it’s a simple spreadsheet I use where I enter in each of my current and potential clients, as well as the forecasted revenue they represent and the amount of time their project will take. Once I have all of my current clients and leads entered, I then use the spreadsheet to help me visualize things like:
- What revenue is coming in, and when
- What project commitments I’ve made
- When I may need to seek more work
- When I may have overextended myself
- What my next steps are with current customers and any potential new business partners
By taking a “bird’s eye view” of my current and upcoming work, I can make better decisions to help keep my workload both steady and manageable. In addition, consider how important the last bullet is: By using a sales pipeline, you can keep track of what next steps need to happen with any given client. If a client has made it to the “meet and discuss” stage, that signals to me that I will soon need to make a decision about whether I want to engage them further—and if I do, then l need to get working on a proposal; if I’ve only just met a new client, the pipeline reminds me that it’s time to qualify them (meaning, determine if the work they need is within my abilities and worth my time).
Using a Sales Pipeline for the Long Game
As you’re setting up your sales pipeline, it’s important to remember that not every potential client is going to move quickly and perfectly through each stage. In fact, some clients may remain in the first two stages indefinitely, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see as much movement in your pipeline as you’d like at first. The goal of using a sales pipeline is to ensure that you’re able to continually evaluate your current and future workloads, and ultimately optimize your sales process so that you’re always working the right amount—and in some cases that process will be a sprint, and in others, a marathon. What’s important is that you’re putting the right efforts in. For example, if you’ve identified a potential client, but haven’t set up time to ensure that they’re qualified—that is, that they have work for you at a fair rate and in a reasonable timeline—then they’re still in the first stage. (Another way of saying this is, your sales pipeline will help you know what your next steps are for any given potential client.)
Keeping Your Sales Pipeline Full
Now that you’re ready to start working with your sales pipeline, it’s time to consider a few best practices to keep it full. There are three activities I keep in mind when working with my sales pipeline:
- Nurture existing clients. While it’s of course important to never lose focus on your existing clients (they are, after all, the ones currently paying you), don’t forget that they can often be a great source for referrals and additional work. Also, it’s never a bad idea to check in with a current client to see if they have future needs that you could meet.
- Be optimistic and think ahead. For me, part of being optimistic means viewing interactions as possibly leading to more work. You never know when a casual conversation will spark up an opportunity, and maintaining a positive outlook helps me stay ready for those opportunities. (Another way of saying this: The more often you find yourself in a negative mindset, the more likely you are to manifest that negativity.)
- Build and maintain a prospect list. Chances are, you’ll come into contact with people who aren’t necessarily “leads” today, but they could be tomorrow. Keep track of these relationships! Doing this expands your network, and ultimately increases your chances that you’ll be prepared when an opportunity arises. It’s also totally OK to reach out to prospects and request referrals, in case they know someone who might benefit from your talents.
Resources for Finding New Clients
With your sales pipeline ready and raring to go, it’s time for the step you’ve been waiting for: finding new clients to work with. To keep a healthy stream of business, I recommend searching for leads both online and in person. Here are the avenues that have been the most successful for me:
- The e-Learning Heroes Forum. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s important to stay engaged with others in the e-Learning community. While there are a lot of great opportunities on their job boards, in the other forums, you’ll definitely come into contact with your peers, and by working together and sharing your work, you can form strong business relationships that can lead to future work opportunities.
- The Association for Talent Development National Job Boards.The Association for Talent Development’s (ATD) job board posts job openings in instructional design, training and development, and the learning management fields. Their search feature allows you to search across all states and/or your local state, and can be a great way to find new work.
- Local ATD Job Boards. The Association for Talent Development (ATD) has local chapters where you can find job postings specific to your area. For example, my local chapter, ATD-Cascadia, has led me to several nearby opportunities. Your local chapter may require you to be a member to access job information, but membership has its privileges: Many chapters host local events, which are great for networking. In addition, some local chapters have mailing lists and directories all designed to keep the e-Learning community connected.
- LinkedIn’s Jobs Section. LinkedIn is a surprisingly effective place to find e-Learning freelance jobs—employers and recruiters often list their openings here first. In addition, there are multiple LinkedIn e-Learning groups where you can get leads from others in the community. (For more information about using LinkedIn to find freelance work, this article provides some great insights.)
- Indeed.com or Monster.com. Similar to LinkedIn, both Indeed and Monster can offer a variety of work opportunities, I recommend setting up job alerts on these sites—that way, you’re getting potential clients emailed to you on a regular basis. (Also, note that you can search by some pretty specific search terms, like “instructional designer,” “Camtasia,” or “Storyline.”)
- Your Personal Network. Friends, relatives, and co-workers from the past can all provide potential e-Learning gigs for you—you never know who is going to introduce you to your next client! Don’t forget to look for peers who provide complementary services and might have the potential to send work your way—in the past, I’ve encountered project managers, voice-over professionals, and web developers who are looking to collaborate with an e-Learning professional.
- Your Local Chamber of Commerce. Many local chambers of commerce host monthly business card exchanges or other networking events. While some have some high fees, it’s typically possible to attend a few select networking events as a guest. (Keep in mind: In most cases, all it takes is landing one gig from this to pay for your membership.)
- Conferences. Attending conferences can be a spendy endeavor, but they’re another great opportunity to connect with your peers and get your name out there. If you’re not sure where to start, check out my listings of upcoming e-Learning conferences.
- Connect One-on-One with Local Peers. I try and make it a habit to periodically get lunch or coffee with local colleagues—not only is it a good way to get myself out of the office, but it’s also a good chance to discuss related services and talk about referring clients to each other. These partnerships can be a gold mine when it comes to building up your business! For example, I recently had the opportunity to meet a wonderful person who lives here in the Portland area who provides voice-over work, and we’ve decided to collaborate on a few projects.
As you’re going through the process of seeking more work, remember that above all else, these things take time, and you never know where your next opportunity is going to come from. By keeping yourself involved in as many avenues as you can, you maximize your potential for landing new work. And remember to track your sales pipeline closely—it can make the difference between continuous work and an extended dry spell!
As always, I invite you to join our private Facebook group to participate in our discussion about keeping a healthy sales pipeline—I’d love to hear about the techniques and places you’ve found most helpful for finding and keeping new clients. Or if you prefer, join the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #eLearningBiz!
Editor’s note: This post is part of my ongoing 2017 series, “Succeeding as an e-Learning Freelancer,” a comprehensive look at the ins-and-outs of working independently in the Learning and Development industry. All of the previous posts in the series can be found here.