You’ve decided on the services you’ll offer as a new virtual assistant and you’ve studied and practiced some skills that online business owners value. All you need to do now is to land that very first client.
One of the most common misconceptions is that you need to have experience before someone will hire you. And that you need to work for free when you’re first starting out to gain that experience.
Sure, getting some client experience under your belt increases your confidence, skills and the speed with which you can secure new clients in the future. There will be many clients who are specifically looking for someone with prior experience in the role they’re looking to fill, or, the online software systems they use in their business.
But there will be just as many potential clients who value things like responsiveness, reliability, quality communication, care and attention to detail more than they do experience.
They know that if you have familiarity with navigating inside the online systems that they’re using and a basic understanding of how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, you could well be the best investment of their money and time over the long run. That’s because no one can train you to really care for their business. You either do or you don’t. Smart online business owners realize this and often contract new team members accordingly.
So if getting your foot in the door as a virtual assistant newbie is not ALL about experience, then what is it about?
It’s about finding a point of connection.
How can you show a potential client, through the written word, that:
- You’re similar to them in some small way, or
- You really understand their unique business, or
- You have some type of connection with their products, their team or their customers.
Your opportunity to leverage any point of connection you find is when you’re first introducing yourself. It could be an outreach email to their personal email address, a message submitted through their website contact form or a private LinkedIn message after they’ve accepted your connection request.
Here are 12 possibilities for finding that point of connection, just to get your foot in the door with those first few clients:
1. You’re from the same country.
Have you ever been traveling on the other side of the world and heard the familiar sound of someone speaking with your home country accent, at the next cafe table across? There’s that sense of instant recognition and connection there, right? You might not have even given them eye contact if you were to pass by them on the street in your home town, but because you’re both here in this unfamiliar environment, knowing you share at least some common life experiences, striking up a conversation is almost a given and welcomed by both parties.
This new world of online business and freelancing is still very much like that unfamiliar environment. You can sometimes leverage this same point of connection to strike up an email conversation with a potential client.
I’ve found that this is most relevant when your potential client is themselves, relatively new to online business and hiring freelancers, or, when it’s apparent they have annual team meet-ups or conferences for which company paid travel would be required.
I’ve give you a a real world example of where I’ve connected with a client in this way:
- I applied to a job on Elance (now Upwork) where the client had a physical office in Sydney, Australia. She was looking to hire outsourced support internationally to take advantage of potentially lower hourly rates. In my cover letter, I made mention of the fact that I was from Australia, but was currently living with my family in Costa Rica, with a lower cost of living, and therefore more than happy to work at a rate of $17/hour (back at that time when I didn’t yet have any online work experience). If she had been hiring me to come and work in her company’s office, she would have been paying a minimum of $25/hour plus office overheads. We were both happy with the win-win there.
Now, I have had quite a few people ask me these questions:
“Will clients only hire freelancers who from their own country?”
“I want to work with clients outside of my home country. Will it be difficult to find them?”
So to clarify there, although a small minority of potential clients prefer to work only with freelancers from their home country, in my experience, the majority are open to hiring from anywhere, provided you have the skills they’re after and you’re fluent in the language their business operates in. And with the 24/7 networking party that is the world wide web, there’s no limitations in finding them. So this ‘same country’ card is really just one possible point of connection you can use whenever it seems to be relevant.
2. You’re living in, or you’re from a country which they have some connection to.
Following on from point #1 above, it’s a similar concept here of finding that common ground. Instead this time you’re not from the same country as your potential client, but you’re living somewhere that would pique their interest if you included mention of it in a brief outreach email.
You could be a Canadian living in London reaching out to a UK based client.
You could be an American living in Bali, reaching out to an Australian client who travels to Bali each year. You know they do, because you read it on their blog!
Again, I’ll give you a couple of real world examples of where I’ve connected with clients in this way:
- I got in touch with a business owner who was selling Spanish language learning programs online. I saw from his website ‘About’ page and blog that he was currently living in Australia, but had previously lived in Mexico for many years. Even though I don’t speak fluent Spanish, I mentioned that I was an Australian currently living in Costa Rica (different country, same region of the world, especially as perceived by Australians). He immediately replied to my email and enthusiastically agreed to my suggestion of booking in a Skype call.
- I submitted an application to a job on Elance where the client was from Germany, but living with his family near my home city in Australia and running live on-the-ground events in Australia. Even though I wasn’t personally based in the same country, he knew I would have the geographic familiarity to help with the coordination of some pre-event logistics that he needed help with and hired me on that basis despite the fact I’d never done that type of work before.
3. You have personal experience with their business niche or topic area.
My very first client in online marketing support was a Canadian based business offering raw food and natural health coaching programs to women. They had sent an email out to their newsletter list to let the audience know they needed some new team members to support the growing business. In my application, I’d made mention of the fact that I was eating a raw food diet at the time and had experienced some dramatic positive changes in my health and lifestyle as a result.
When I took on a new client who sold photography related products, supported by a blog about photography, I contacted someone to support me with this client who had no experience whatsoever in working with blogs, social media or email marketing, but had a ton of experience with photography as their personal hobby.
For many of the things you are personally passionate about, there will be people who are blogging about it, selling products related to it and making money from it. Get their websites and emails down on a shortlist and then one-by-one let know that you’re available and skilled up.
4. You’ve learned to use an online software system that you can see they’re using in their business.
Check the inbox for the email address you use to subscribe to newsletters and freebie downloads online. As those newsletter roll in, even if you don’t have time to be reading all that copy, start to pay attention to the “From” field. If you see something like “firstname.lastname@example.org via aweber.com” or “email@example.com via infusionmail.com” you know you’ve got a potential in with that business owner. You know that they’re using AWeber or Infusionsoft (or any other system) to manage their list and email marketing. And if you’ve learned to navigate your way around that specific system, you can write to them and ask if they need business support, using that specific software name as your point of connection.
Even better if you’re familiar with both their business topic area (point #3 above) and their online software!
Once you gain a little experience and familiarity with online tools, you can use this same Sherlock Holmes approach to investigate potential clients’ social media posts, website pages, website plugins, product order forms, webinar registration pages and more!
5. You’ve previously worked offline in a similar type of business.
This strategy of referencing your regular on-the-ground work history is one I find that’s often underutilized by new freelancers trying to secure their first job.
If you’re acquainted with ‘fudging’ your paper resume to make it more applicable to a job you’ve applied for in the past, then know that you can transfer that very same approach here to the world of online work too! Whatever experience you have in your personal work history, can you find a way to make just one small part of that relevant when mentioning it to a potential client in an online job application or outreach email?
When I was applying for one of my first online jobs that was to support the owner of a law firm with their online education business for lawyers, I let them know that I had experience working in a law firm as an administrative support person. This really wasn’t all that relevant in practical terms, because the systems I would be using in their online business were completely different to traditional law firm systems in a physical office. But the fact that the client knew I had some point of reference of what law firms were all about sure helped to get my application noticed and secure that interview.
6. You’ve previously worked offline in a similar type of role.
You can also take the same approach to leveraging your offline work experience if you’ve performed a role that has any similarities at all to the current online work you’re applying for.
Have you ever provided administrative services, in any type of business at all?
Have you ever provided marketing services, worked as a support person in a marketing department, or were involved in some way in any part of a business that was focused on bringing in new customers and sales?
Have you ever provided customer service in an office, hospitality or retail environment?
Choose the one or two most closely related snippets of experience you can dig up, and mention them succinctly and confidently in your client outreach email or application.
When I was searching for my very first clients, I applied to many different jobs that included ‘customer service’ as one of the main task requirements. I explained to potential clients that I was new to online work, but had 2 years experience providing customer service to clients within the finance industry.
Remember, as a new freelancer providing online marketing support services, you’re not trying to prove that you’ve got what it takes to code a website from scratch, run a full-scale product launch single-handedly or grow a business owner’s revenue by 20% this year. You just need to show you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, you pick up things quickly and you communicate well. That’s what most of your first clients will really be looking for.
7. You know one of the existing freelancers on their team.
This is such an awesome way to have doors opened for you with online work opportunities… when you know someone who already has established a client and referral base working online. Start networking with other people who provide online services of any kind – marketing, administration, writing, web development, design, consulting – and just let them know you’re getting started with online work. You can do this virtually through social media or at ‘real world’ meet-ups and conferences.
Ask them about what they do. Ask them what kinds of clients they work with. Let them know you’re just getting started and mention the specific software systems you’ve trained yourself up in.
So many times when online business owners are expanding their teams, the first people they ask for referrals are their existing freelance team members. And if you’ve established some good connections with experienced freelancers, you’ll be top of mind.
8. You’ve commented on their blog or social media posts.
If your potential client has a business blog on which they personally publish their own posts, showing your presence there by adding a short, thoughtful comment now and then can go along way to making you stand out. It’s a good idea not to go overboard with this strategy – you don’t want to give the impression of being a stalker! But even just one or two blog comments or Facebook post Likes is enough to have your name and face in front of a potential client before you send an outreach email about your services. Liam Veitch of Freelancelift refers to this as becoming ‘a blip on the radar of your dream client’.
I haven’t personally used this strategy as yet, so can’t speak from experience here, but have heard several freelancers report success with it, particularly when they’re really putting in an effort to secure one specific client that they’d really love to work with.
9. You’ve bought or used their product, or a similar product in their niche.
Are you already a customer of the potential client you’d like to work with? That is a very relevant point to make brief mention of when you want your email to get noticed. Have you taken their course, participated in their membership program, bought their book, purchased a physical product they sell in online or offline stores or used their service?
If a potential client knows that you have skills, availability and have already shown a certain level of involvement in their business, they’ll often be willing to train you in the specifics even if you don’t have experience.
One of the clients I got in touch with in my first year working online had published a recipe book which I’d purchased 8 years earlier and carted around the countryside with me. I of course made mention of this fact when asking them if they needed any extra support in their online business!
10. You attended the same conference or networking event.
It’s absolutely not a requirement to attend conferences or on-the-ground networking events to build a successful freelance career, but, it is just one option you’ve got available to you to make those initial connections and spread the word about what you do.
The one potential downside to be aware of in on-the-ground networking in your home city is that you need to be very clear with potential clients that you operate 100% virtually, and aren’t available for regular in-person meetings (unless you want to be of course).
If I was going to use this approach starting out, here’s what I’d do:
- Research business conferences that attract online business owners, happening in other major cities outside of my own – to altogether avoid that potential downside of needing to enforce boundaries with clients. If you don’t live in the same city as them, it goes without saying that you only work from home!
- Search for cheap flights and last minute hotel deals to get there… most probably a $30/night hostel if I was traveling solo. Consider it a wise investment in your freelance business stat-up, if you know you’re going to put in the work to make the investement pay off.
- Spend a full 2 to 3 days attending the conference, getting down to breakfast early and staying out to dinner late with the other delegates. It doesn’t need to be all website and online marketing talk. Just spending time with other online business owners over an intense period of a few days can expand your future options dramatically.
- And if you’re flying solo? Just as soon as you had the bare minimum income coming in from your online work to cover your weekly living expenses, you could extend that plan out internationally, combining a schedule of conference hopping and international travel with wherever the next low-cost airfare will take you. The life of a digital nomad!
How awesome is that? Seriously!
11. You speak the language of one of their target markets.
Last but not least, do you have another language other than English up your sleeve? If you choose to, you’ve got the option of targeting your online work research to businesses that run their websites and marketing in that language. This is particularly helpful if they operate in dual languages – Spanish/English, German/English, French/English for example – and you can support them in both. Even if your preference is not to continue working in multiple languages for the long term, what you’re really after here is that point of connection to get some initial experience under your belt. You can then branch out as you build up your client base and decide where exactly you’ll take it from there.
Once you have that first year of experience behind you, you can really start to talk about past projects, similar clients you’ve helped or even advice and suggestions for getting the job done when you’re securing new clients. But before then, you just need that very first client and for that… that one point of connection that will let them know you’re the exact person they’ve been looking for.