“How can I improve my marketing?” one of my students asked me. “I’ve spent hours and hours trying to get clients, and none of my efforts seem to pay off.”

Missing ingredient

I asked my self-employed student just one question: “What would you say is the missing ingredient in your marketing?”

He thought about it for a moment. “Well,” he said, “I don’t think I’m networking in the right places. I seem to meet a lot of jobseekers and salespeople, but I’m not connecting with corporate decision-makers or meeting other consultants like myself who might be able to give me referrals. That’s who I really need to be meeting. Say, I’d better find some new groups to network with!”

My student had just solved one of his biggest marketing problems. But before he asked himself the right question, he didn’t even know what that problem was.

In my book Get Clients Now!, I suggest that marketing is a lot like cooking. You can’t have a successful recipe if there are crucial ingredients absent. But the way many self-employed professionals create their marketing recipes is like cooks who never taste what they are making. Imagine what catastrophe would ensue if you simply started adding more salt to your soup without ever tasting it.

Too many professionals approach marketing like careless cooks. When they think their mix isn’t quite right, they start adding elements at random. If live networking doesn’t seem to be working as a marketing approach, they say, “Maybe I’ll try social media instead,” or, “Perhaps I’ll buy some online ads.” But if they stopped for a moment to taste their cooking first, they might discover that their basic recipe is fine, it’s just an ingredient or two that is missing.

Here are three “taste tests” you might try to see what’s missing from your marketing:

1. Are you lacking an important tool? Every marketing approach requires a solid set of tools to be effective. If you are trying to network without a concise, benefits-oriented description of your services, it’s no wonder that people you meet don’t turn into clients or referral sources. When you don’t land clients from your speaking engagements, perhaps you are presenting on the wrong topics. You may be using exactly the right approach but not have the right tools to carry it out.

Building essential tools — like a memorable self-introduction or compelling speaking topic — to adequately support your chosen marketing activities can make a dramatic difference in the kind of results you achieve. Don’t be afraid to hire a professional to help you when you discover a key ingredient missing from your recipe. Investment in a few basic marketing tools can pay for itself many times over.

2. Do you have the needed skills? No amount of cold calling is going to produce sales for you when your telemarketing skills aren’t up to the job. Attending networking mixers is unlikely to be productive if you get tongue-tied when talking to strangers. To build your skills in areas like these, take classes, read books, practice with colleagues, or work with a coach. Telemarketing, networking, public speaking, and personal selling are all skills that you can learn to use better.

3. Is there some key data you lack? My student above needed to find out where the decision-makers in his industry got together. As another example, if your website isn’t generating prospects, you may need to clarify the most pressing problems for your target market and make sure you address them in your copy. Gathering more information about what your clients want or need, or how they find and choose professionals like you, can add a substantial boost to your marketing.

To determine your missing ingredients, try asking yourself, “Why aren’t I…” or, “Why can’t I…” about whatever marketing approaches you have chosen to use. For example: “Why aren’t I getting clients from networking?” or “Why can’t I get business from speaking?” Your answer is likely to point you to a crucial tool you need to build, a key skill you need to develop, or some critical information you lack. Once you know what this missing element is, you can set about acquiring it.

So, before you get cooking on your next round of sales and marketing, pause and taste the result of your efforts so far. If you stop adding salt when sugar is what’s needed, your marketing recipes will begin to turn out much better.

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