When we start a business, we will take any clients we can get our hands on. Sometimes they don’t even fit our product/service brief – we just want the income. And that’s understandable.
The problem is that working like this over a long period of time sets us up with the wrong mindset. It means that we will often end up continuously working with clients who don’t pay our desired rate (often we discount to get them), can be time consuming, and leave us feeling stuck with our ‘lot’. It doesn’t enable us to grow our business and can leave us feeling like busy fools. Therefore, at some point we need to move forward to the clients we really want so that we earn the money we desire and have the business we dreamed of when we first started up.
The three client groups
I believe that there are three distinct client groups: ‘just for now’, ideal and dream. The ‘just for now’ client is exactly what it says on the tin. The one that you took on because you needed the work and saw them very much as a short-term stop gap. Or figured out in the very first meeting that they were definitely not for keeps but just for now, and until you found someone better. They may also have got a lower price out of you when you took them on because you were so glad to bring in some work that you pretty much agreed to anything.
The ‘ideal’ client is just as the name suggests – the client who fits the criteria you had in mind when you first started planning your new venture. They give you interesting work in the main, negligible problems and pretty much pay on time. And they may not even have quibbled over the price! On a day to day basis, these are the clients that you want to attract. They may not be the big, hard hitting client who comes with bags of kudos and opportunities but they are the type of client that makes you glad you made the leap to working for yourself and make working for yourself more of a pleasure than a chore.
The dream client
And then we have the dream client. The gold-plated I’m-so-happy-I’m-working-with-you-that-I’d-go-to-the-ends-of-the-earth-for-you client. The one that you only dared dream you’d bring in, because you never thought they’d work with you. And then they did. This is likely to be the client who brings with them some kind of cachet, fascinating work and, importantly, the chance to network on the back of them. After all, bringing in one top-notch client is a great opportunity to bring in more.
In order to move from just for now to dream, you need to be clear about the characteristics of each of the groups. Write them down, and then compare them to the clients you currently attract, the ones you’ve attracted in the past, and then any leads you have. You’ll see a pattern, and this will make it much easier for you to move forward to bringing in the clients you really want.
Looking at client groups in more detail often throws up a common issue: a trade-off that we made with ourselves in order to bring those first few clients in.
One may pay on time, be just around the corner from our office but give us rather uninteresting work. Another may give us the most interesting work we’ve ever had but give us the most challenging turnaround times, necessitating working late into the evening and at weekends to get the job done. But then, if they’re paying the full daily rate, and on time, it’s likely to be something we can justify to ourselves – at least in the short term.
The client trade-offs
What are the trade-offs that you’ve started to accept in relation to your clients? And are they the right trade-offs? What might you want to change moving forwards?
Human nature dictates that we will often stick with the just for now client without looking for the ideal, let alone the dream, client because of two factors. Two easily resolved factors, in fact. Time and confidence.
Time: We tend to convince ourselves, once we’re in that comfortable position of having enough clients to cover the bills (irrespective of the hours we might work to bring in the money) that we just don’t have time to find bigger and better ones. However, once you’ve identified the characteristics of your ideal and dream client, it’s a straightforward step to find them. It doesn’t take any extra time each day, just some planning up front (and you should be regularly reviewing your bizdev planning and strategies in any case) and then full steam ahead to working with the people you really want to work with.
Confidence: It takes a lot of confidence to go out and sell your business. Some people never manage it, stick with their just for now clients, find life to be a real struggle, and decide that they’d rather go back into employment. Others get over the initial challenge and, as they sell more, they get into their stride and even admit that they quite enjoy it! The key is to see selling to clients as just solving a problem; a problem that you can solve for them by using your skills and experience. The other thing to remember about confidence is that it comes with time, so the more time you spend doing something (and, by virtue of that work, the more success you have) the more confident you become.
Another point to note is that if you work with clients who you feel don’t value your work – because they don’t pay the rate you want, for instance – that will eventually rub off on you and cloud your view of your business, and your capabilities. And knock your confidence even further.
It’s never too early, or too late, to change that and start moving towards the clients you really want to work with. You just need to start.
Ali Golds is a business coach and author.