NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: After my former employer laid me off last year, they offered me a chance to come back as a consultant to run some special projects. I took them up on it, thinking the work would at least tide me over while I looked for a new job. I found I really like being an independent consultant, and I'd like to try doing it as a permanent career.
But I'd rather not rely on just one company as a client, especially since the work I'm doing here will probably dry up in a few months. I've been in this industry long enough to know a fair number of people elsewhere, but I could use a few tips on how to approach them, and how to find potential clients at companies where I don't know anyone. Any suggestions? -- Self-Employed in Sea-Tac
Dear Self-Employed: You're asking at exactly the right moment. "The trick with consulting, if you want to do it for a long-term living as opposed to just between jobs, is to keep the work coming in while you're already working," says Kate Wendleton, president of nationwide career-counseling firm the Five O'Clock Club. "Many consultants forget to market themselves until the work dries up."
She adds: "There's great comfort in being hired back by your old company -- and it's a great selling point when you approach other employers -- but to make this last, you do need to line up more clients."
With several months to go until your current assignments end, and a fair number of industry contacts already established, you have a good headstart. Your first task is to make a detailed list of the decision-makers in your field at companies that might be potential clients. "This is the hardest part," Wendleton notes. Why? "Ideally, you need between 200 and 400 of them, so you may need to do extensive research," she says.
To identify movers and shakers, do web searches and delve into the trade press in your industry, the general business press, LinkedIn, lists of industry conference attendees, your own personal network (everybody knows somebody), and any other sources you can find.
At the same time, create a brochure -- either printed, in electronic form, or both -- that tells who you are and what you do. "This should be a succinct description of your special skills and achievements, including what you accomplished at your full-time jobs," Wendleton says. Then update this brochure every quarter, swapping out old achievements for more current ones, and send it to the 200 to 400 people on your list.
"For each quarterly mailing, or e-mailing, you can expect to get 8 or 9 responses saying, 'Let's talk,'" says Wendleton. "Even if only 2 or 3 of those conversations leads to actual work, it's enough to keep you busy."
You can jumpstart that process by choosing about 20 of the most promising prospects from your contact list and requesting a meeting before you even send out your brochure. "With this select group, you should be very low-key, and be specific about what you can offer them," Wendleton says. For instance, if you notice in the trade press that a company is expanding its business in an area where you have some expertise, mention where your services might fit in.
Another surefire way to attract new business: Give speeches or teach courses. "Consultants often worry that, if they speak to local groups or teach a class at, say, the American Management Association, they'll be 'giving away the store,' but that's not how it works," says Wendleton. "If you give away valuable information, people will pay to get more of it." Of course, be sure your audience members have your brochure and contact information along with whatever other materials you hand out.
If this sounds like a lot of effort up front, it is. But once you've built a solid customer base, Wendleton notes, word gets around and "one job leads to another. You'll probably end up getting a 'real' job offer at some point -- and then you'll have to decide whether to take it."
Speaking of promoting yourself, PricewaterhouseCoopers is offering a free interactive tutorial, starting Mon. Feb. 22, on how to build a personal brand. The five-part series of online workshops, at www.pwc.tv, will cover topics like: how to craft a boffo "elevator pitch" and how to articulate your long-term career goals to interviewers. Holly Paul, PwC's head of recruiting, says the course is designed to "help students and other job seekers get hired, either here or elsewhere."
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