03/15/2012 05:44 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

How to Find Your Customers

When I first started my consulting practice, I didn't have to wait long before I landed my first client. In fact it was my former employer. Over the years I had built up my reputation and was therefore known for my work so finding customers wasn't too difficult. I just networked, got in touch with some former colleagues to update them on what I was doing, and then I was top-of-mind when they were looking for someone to work on a project.

But these days many people leap from what they did in the past to a totally different field or industry, perhaps pursuing a passion or seeing a gap in service. This does make it more challenging to snag that first customer as the newbie entrepreneur is not only new to business, but new to the sector and is starting out from scratch.

So how do you find that first customer? I've often written about finding the perfect customer but at this stage in your business, the cynic in me says any warm body will do as long as they pay their bills. You will quickly learn who you like to work with and later you can afford to be more discerning.

Here's a few tips:

1. Research your new industry and track down the key players. Introduce yourself to them. You can make it an informational interview. At the risk of sounding like your mother, remember to write and say thank you.

2. Network, network, network. In order to get the word out, you need to go out. Attend as many network meetings as you can afford. Decide which ones will help and support you the most, and become a regular.

People do business with people they know and trust and while they may not do business directly with you, they may refer you to someone who will.

3. Volunteer. When you donate your services/product or lend your expertise to a charity or local service club, you are not only doing good but getting yourself known and broadening your network within the community.

4. Update your friends. Let them know what you are doing and how they can help. But don't overdo the sales pitch or you will put them right off, or worse still, lose the friendship.

5. Participate in online discussion groups such as LinkedIn. Ask questions, get feedback from more seasoned business owners. Build an online community that will support you.

6. Build a database. Carry your business cards with you wherever you go and if you meet someone you want to connect with, ask for their card and check if they would be willing to receive your newsletter. If they say 'yes' add them to your list, but be careful not to swamp them with promotional information.

7. Start an e-zine. Once you have a decent size database, consider sending out a monthly ezine that gives useful information to the recipient, as well as promoting your business. You can use email marketing programs like Constant Contact, which is inexpensive, to manage the process and track the results.

8. Provide a start-up offer for a time-limited period, so people can sample what you have to offer at a cheaper rate.

9. Join the industry group for your new sector. People are usually more than happy to help a newbie and you will get connected to others who are working with your target audience.

10. Find an accountability buddy. In your travels you are bound to meet someone else like you who has just started a business. Consider meeting up on a regular basis so that you can support each other and hold the other accountable to the goals set for the week.

11. Partner up. Be willing to form alliances or partner up with someone else who offers similar services.

In the initial stages of my consulting practice, I worked with another consultant as the "junior" consultant on his projects and found that to be an excellent way to learn the ropes of being a "consultant" while getting paid at the same time. Later I would hire other consultants if I had a big project, or needed someone with a specific skill set. So don't rule out working with someone else.

So often new business owners have a "if you build it, they will come" attitude. And they will but maybe not as quickly as you would like.

It is so easy at the beginning to get discouraged. You start to second-guess yourself, questioning your wisdom at taking this leap into the world of entrepreneurism. Hang in there.

In his book The Dip, Seth Godin talks about how people give up too early, when success is just around the corner. Believe it, your first customer is waiting in the wings.