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Writing to Potential Clients: Be the Chameleon

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We've all faced the challenge of exchanging messages with people we've never met in person:

Face to face working in an office, the 50 year old businessmen expected a certain degree of presentation. When I went freelance, talking to people online was completely different. I was not sure how to correspond.

Emails and social messages, it soon becomes apparent there are many voices out there --different age groups, agendas and expectations. How do we communicate with them appropriately and get our message across persuasively?

As I became more interactive with strangers, I became less confident in my own voice. In person, I could act the part. In the virtual world, especially with no previous connection, how do you judge the best way to correspond?

In person, there are so many other cues to read the tone of the situation and the interaction. If you make a step towards humor and it is not responded to then you can adjust your tone. In print we have different typefaces that help direct the tone of voice we hear in our head, but what about straight unformatted text?

For example, how often do you receive a text message and are not quite sure of the senders indented tone? It can leave you a little baffled; "Are they annoyed? That was a short answer.”

Online, we have been conditioned to keep our communications minimal as we are constrained to character spaces or have limited energy for unnecessary typing.

We are affected by our ulterior motives. If we are desperate, if we are looking for clients, if we are doing a favor, if we are contacting them as a referral or cold off the bat.

Anonymity means you can re-invent yourself. Do you re-invent yourself with each correspondence, or keep a steady hand on whom you want to be online? For me, I felt myself becoming more chameleon-like talking to so many different voices online.

Being yourself in writing, however, doesn't mean staying rigid with your communication style. Every time we communicate with someone, we adapt ourselves to the situation. We'll use a different tact and tone based on who we are writing to and our goals for contacting them.

Here are some angles on how to mold your messages to match the tone of the recipient, as well as persuasive strategies, which will help you land more client deals.

Read up on their social media accounts. How are they using language there?

Looking through someone’s Twitter or Facebook conversations can help. Do they talk like a company, do they talk about work in a playful way, and do they talk about other things apart from work? You never truly know what kind of person you’re approaching, especially if they are writing as a company, but you will get a feel for how to approach them by reviewing their social media accounts. Here are two samples of tweets to compare.

A fashion label:

Black, Black, Black - we love it!!”, “Check out this eclectic collection of summer bits and bobs to tickle your fancy.

An architecture firm:

Color trends 2012 - EXHIBITION ARCHITECTURE”, ”Japan is moving fast: 208 Japanese companies set up in Vietnam last year - $1.8bn

In this case for me, with the fashion label client I would adopt a more casual tone, engage with them in a playful way about their products and offer some suggestions as to how they could integrate their design vision with my services. Whereas, communicating with the architecture firm would dictate a more serious tone and approach.

Read into your potential client’s tone and adjust your communications accordingly.

Just want to check in, curious about your price list, know it’s a hard question, maybe we can do business. Let’s catch up some time, have a good one.

Receiving a message like the one above feels somewhat relaxed, punchy and comfortable. You could take on two different approaches when contacting them back, by responding in a friendly tone: "Hi, I’m great!” Then start to be a bit chatty, show some prices, talk for a while, and make it a conversational piece – as if you were having a virtual coffee.

Or you could approach this with your straightforward information voice: "Thank you for contacting me. Please find my attached prices. Sincerely…."

Having an instant conversation with every client does not always work well. Look to match the tone that the potential client uses in their message and you will have a better chance of continued communications.

You can match their personality level in a way you feel comfortable. You're still being yourself, just adapted to communicating with this person, which is something we do in person with ease when communicating all the time.

Think about how they have posted their ad. What kind of language do they use?

You’ll have to decide how much to adapt your language with each potential client and what you feel comfortable with.

I applied for a job that in their description used terms such as “Living and breathing seneque”. Honestly, I had to look this word up. The description was articulate and worded quite seriously, so I adjusted my response accordingly.

Each new correspondent I approach as a blank slate. If the language is sophisticated I grab the thesaurus and match their tone and level if need be. The problem here lies with setting up a tone that dictates the way you correspond in the future and this may not be how you want to naturally conduct yourself.

You'll have to decide how much to adapt your language with each potential client and what you feel comfortable with. Some client communication styles will be more challenging than others.

The voice and language you use can present you as young, new, or expert.

When communicating online with a new client (or sending them information or a quote), I tend to steer away from colloquial language and language that is too technical until I feel grounded in the relationship. Terms such as “responsive design” can be too much information and leave a potential client flustered.

Choice of wording can leave an impression on a client as to what type of person you are. You could present yourself as new and/or young, which can show you to be enthusiastic. Or you could put a spin on your language that indicates you are an expert, which can insinuate wisdom and that clients will be handled with care. Be mindful here not to claim to be something you are not. Your angle is how you make the client feel after talking to you.

Communicating with individuals, small agencies, and HR representatives.

Talking to these 3 groups will naturally change your tone as they have different agendas. Corresponding with individuals is easier to feel more personable. They will be looking for a one-on-one approach and personal attention.

With a small agency you need a way to connect with them. Enthusiasm, knowledgeability, and curiousness are traits that you can portray in discussing the agency's projects. HR and recruitment personnel will need a voice grounded in experience, professional qualities, and an academic understanding. All will need variations of your personal ‘pitch’.

Mismatched voices can be missed opportunities.

I have found being too formal can come off as scary and overbearing. Too relaxed makes you appear not serious and untrustworthy to complete the task.

When you read online you read in your head the voice of the author. Clients want to know they will like you and want to correspond with you. If you come across as someone they would not want to work with in person then why would they online?

Cold contacting potential clients.

Never talked to the potential client before? Look at their work, any articles about their work, or corporate released material.

When ‘cold’ contacting a potential client, how do you know whether to take on the approach of: “check out my site” or “please refer to my site”. This is where a little detective work can help you.

How did you find out about this company or individual? For example, if it is a website that you feel could do with a clean up, and you want to contact the owner, find out who they are first. Have they had any publicity, are they in any magazines, any articles, etc. Even pictures of the person can give clues.

I got wind of a person that ‘may need design one day, sometime in the future’. I researched their work, understood she was 45+, and had a certain style in her products. This transformed the way I wrote my introduction email. This client responded enthusiastically.

What I appreciated in online communications

After talking to a fellow Twitter user in regards to freelance work, it did not work for me to take the job. I was quite taken aback, however, when the correspondent asked if we could work together on future projects, ones that could be done remotely.

It was not the follow up email that surprised me (although nice); it was the tone of language they used. It was overwhelmingly gushing and adoring - unlike a brief ‘initial contact’ message. They made me interested in working with them and I became excited about possibilities. They accomplished this simply by being attentive and enthusiastic in their language choice.

Practice pitching to find your footing.

Key factors will always be relevant, such as professionalism and politeness. Yet, you can adapt your communication style to make initial contact with the millions of voices online.

Keep in mind that, anything past the first stage you will need to fit your correspondences into your own groove so the conversations feel natural as they progress. Keep pitching to find your footing, you'll develop a range of strategies for approaching new clients. In time, you'll feel comfortable as a chameleon of communication.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by sergeyskleznev.

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