There are a lot of posts about acquiring B2C customers out there, but far less has been written about B2B. Here's my contribution about where to start if you just launched your company and are looking for those precious first customers. It's also a reflection for me, as I realised I haven't tried all of these tricks to find new customers myself.
So here we go. Nine things your should do to find your first contracts.
The most obvious
1) Ask Your Previous Employers
If you plan to do a job you've been previously employed to do, you should definitely try and give your ex-bosses a call. Tell them you're going freelance and are looking for your first customers. If they have nothing to hire you for, try to get some referrals for the work you've done for them in the past.
2) Use Your Network
When you've just created a company, let people in your network know about it, preferably through a phone call or by talking in person. Don't wait until you need them to get back in touch. The people in your network already trust you and if they think of any job they might delegate to you, hopefully they will.
3) Use the Network of Your Network
When you reach back to the people in your network, give them some extra documents (brochure, business cards, etc.) to pass on. Ask them explicitly if they know anyone that might need your company's help. If they can't name someone, politely ask them to talk about you.
One rule you should follow: make it super easy to talk about your company. Which means your baseline should be easy to remember.
Not an easy one, since you'll have to compete with the big fish that have plenty of money for advertisement. Be creative and try to find a way to advertise yourself, cheap (somewhere unconventional and in an original way).
5) Partnership / Piggybacking
Does your product or service fit well with another one, sold by an established company?
If yes, find a way to work with them and benefit from their influence. To do so, you have to modify your product or service to add value to theirs (i.e: sublime or make it easier to use or buy).
The less obvious
6) Extend your Network
As founders, it's one of our primary roles to extend our network. To do so, we have to allocate time for that. I try to spend at least half a day per week to focus on extending / reinforcing my network. This implies going to events, conferences and workshops. Don't hesitate to ask your friends and people in your first network circle, to introduce you to their connections. Even though I'm not good at this, I'm sure that having random lunch with friends of friends could be a great way to grow my network (and make new friends).
7) Write and Talk
Show off! Plan time in your week to show the world how much of an expert you are. Start a blog (whether it's personal and/or corporate) or offer to be a speaker at conferences. One thing I'm currently working on, is to write a story to send to local and dedicated magazines and websites. It will be about a topic we are experts on, and pretty neutral. The only thing I'll ask is to have it linked to my company's website.
We also followed the trend that encourages companies to educate their customers, and created a free 3-day e-mail course about start-up methodologies. This should reinforce our credibility and create new leads (I'm using the conditional because the course is ready but we haven't opened it up for registration just yet).
8) Foot in the Door
Every young company should have at least one no-brainer product or service in its catalog. Something that provides so much value at a very low price that basically any customer in its target would buy it without engaging in a long decision process. With that said, I know it's not that easy to figure something out. But you should keep this goal in mind and spend some time working on it.
Can you package a sort of audit that is connected to your main business? Something that would help you prove your main product or service's value? (Killing two birds with one stone.)
9) Help, Give Free Advice and do Pro-bono
While waiting for customers and even when you have some, take the time to help people. Use your skills to help an association or your fellow entrepreneurs who need assistance to start and grow their business. Not only will you stay in the game by working (even for free), you'll also grow your own network and maybe get some referrals you can later use to convince prospects. Remember that nobody wants to be the first customer and deal with the teething problems.
More generally, if you don't know where to start, draw the identikit of your ideal prospect. What is its business situation? Who are its customers? Who's making decisions? (the CEO? the CFO?).
Then try to figure out where those persons are hanging out (for both work and leisure), what they are reading, how do they get information before buying the kind of product or service you provide, and then create a strategy to be around them.