Building a direct client portfolio is the key challenge for any contractor who wants to contract direct and create a sustainable contracting lifestyle independent of agencies and intermediaries. Creating a portfolio of clients who use your services, and who come back to you time and again for those services, will enable you to demonstrate you are in business in your own right, with all the attendant costs and risks, a clear signpost away from IR35. With the current consultation around extending recent IR35 changes in the public sector to the private sector, perhaps as early as April 2019, now is definitely the time to start building your own direct client portfolio.
But how to achieve this?
Marketing your services. The most neglected area and one of the most difficult for a contractor to get right, is how to market themselves. In this short article we will concentrate on marketing yourself to direct clients, as opposed to marketing yourself to agencies. Whilst most contractors are used to the latter, marketing your services to direct clients requires a different approach and different mindset.
The first thing to bear in mind is that the client is looking to engage with a small consultancy or software company, so your approach should mirror the approach taken by the consultancy companies and software companies themselves. Firstly, you must secure a business name that conveys the essence of what you do for marketing purposes, or, at the very least, doesn’t sound like just another “off the shelf” company that any contractor could have. It’s a must to produce a professional looking website as a shopfront for your services, even if you are a 1 person business. List your key areas of skill and experience, give prominence to past clients and client testimonials, and think creatively about how you can show you have some “intellectual property” in your specialist area. This can be a book, white paper, software utility, methodology, really anything that demonstrates your expertise in your chosen area, as this is what clients are looking to invest in. Often a first reaction is “but I don’t have anything like that!”, but also consider if you have training material, or any speaking engagements that you have conducted. Consider creating something if you have nothing to hand, a brief paper or article on a matter of potential interest to clients, in the form of an e-book, pdf, or podcast that can be downloaded from your site. When it comes to putting details of your skills and experience on the website, the biggest mistake is posting your CV on the site, as this creates the impression you are a contractor looking for a job, rather than a small software consultancy looking to engage with clients. Instead, include a brief biography listing your skills and experience, what business sectors you operate in, and which companies are happy to be listed as your clients, together with any client testimonials you have collected previously.
The second thing to bear in mind is that marketing yourself to direct clients is a continuous, “always on” state of mind. Again this is fundamentally a different approach to marketing yourself to agencies, where most contractors completely shut down their marketing activities when they are in a contract that suits them, almost avoiding agency contact at all costs. So, even if you are lucky enough to find yourself in a direct contract that suits you, it’s still important to keep that website updated and current, and to make sure you are available to respond to any inbound contacts.
Part of this is making sure that your LinkedIn profile is kept up to date, including any current assignments. LinkedIn marketing can be tricky, as you can only have the one profile, and it must be optimised to attract direct clients rather than agency contact. If you present yourself under your (now meaningful) company name as MD or CEO, and list your client assignments with brief details of your achievements at each, a very persuasive profile can be built up. Add to this the marketing collateral that is now on your website and you’ll have a stellar LI profile in no time at all.
Finally, you will need to use your online presence to build your network. This will probably focus around LinkedIn, but could include whichever networks are active in your particular sector. Don’t be afraid to reach out to potential hiring managers in your sector with connection requests – after all you are not asking for a job, just asking to keep in touch with colleagues in the same profession. Follow those companies that are of potential interest to you as future clients, that way, if they post openings on LinkedIn they will find their way into your feed and you will be in pole position to respond with a proposal.
||IT Software/Consulting Business
|Business Operating model
||Own (meaningful name) Company
Own Website & marketing material
|Umbrella Co or
Off the shelf company
|CV / LinkedIn Profile
||LinkedIn Profile as Company MD / CEO / CIO
LI Profile as a Contractor
|Sources of work/clients
Word of Mouth
In bound leads from Website / LinkedIn
Lead subscription service such as Contract Spy
In summary, here’s a useful quick comparison table highlighting the differences between acting as a contractor, and acting as a business seeking direct clients. Good Luck!