“We know our clients!” It’s the mantra of every firm everywhere. But do you really know who your ideal client is? Have you taken the time to figure it out?
One of the most fundamental, and critical, aspects of marketing anything is having a clear understanding of who you hope to attract. Yet, it’s surprising how many professional services firms either haven’t thought deeply about this topic or haven’t come to agreement on it.
When we first interact with new potential clients, one of the first questions I ask in one of our first two discovery meetings is, “Who is your ideal client?” At least 75% of the time the answer that comes back is fuzzy or incomplete. Here are a few of the more common responses:
- “We work with the middle market.” Sounds good on the surface. That’s 3% of U.S. businesses. Sounds like you’ve narrowed your focus a bit. But, that 3% is over 200k companies that cut across every facet of the global economy. Collectively, they’re actually the 5th largest economy on the planet…okay, I’m thinking you might need to be more specific.
- “We work with the C-Suite.” Also, sounds good. You only work with the top of the house. But let’s lean on this a bit further. Do the objectives of the CEO, the CSO, COO, CMO, CHRO, CFO, and CIO align lockstep? What about the challenges? Does the CMO of Target face the same set of challenges as the CIO of Pfizer? Well…probably not. Maybe we shouldn’t be grouping them all together as a cohort.
- “We don’t have an ideal client…we have 4 or 5.” Okay. This answer is somewhat fair. If you have a diverse firm (over $100M in revenue) and you’re addressing 4-5 different market sectors, then you may have a few very different client types. But, for most smaller firms (less than $50M in revenue), this is just a politician’s answer. There is an ideal client that you’d like to walk through the door right now. You just haven’t taken the time to identify and describe who it is. Or, more likely, you haven’t taken the time to come to agreement between your collection of senior leaders on the matter.
This is Not About Personas
Now, I want to be clear I’m not talking about personas here. I don’t think it’s a worthwhile exercise to create a fictitious avatar of someone who may or may not exist that you hope will walk miraculously through your digital door this week. Persona-based marketing makes a ton of sense for a B2C organization that does business with hundreds of thousands or millions of people on an annual basis. Developing a fictitious story that’s loosely based on reality to describe your customer in a situation when they feel somewhat opaque is incredibly helpful. It helps marketing and customer support people alike develop better customer insight and create empathy.
But you’re a professional services firm. If you’re doing this right, your client roster should be in the 10s or 100s (if you’re a really large firm) not the 1000s. In this situation you’re better suited to develop an ideal client profile. It may sound a bit semantic, but the nuance is important. An ideal client profile is a framework for describing the people you already work with and would like to work with more deeply or more frequently.
When we talk to our clients about this issue, we advise them to break it down into 3 component parts:
- Firmographics — The organizations we’re ideally suited to work with.
- Demographics — The people within those organizations that hire us.
- Psychographics — The pressing and burning issues those people face right now that you can help them solve.
Let’s look at each one at a high-level.
To begin, break down your ideal client based on the types of organizations where you’ve had the most success in the past or believe you could have the most success in the future. A firmographic profile should include:
- Industry — Is there one industry you work in predominantly? A few industries? Describe them here.
- Size — Depending on the industry, establish a proxy for size. You might focus on revenue, profit, number of employees, number of locations, etc.
- Location — What is the regional footprint in which you’d like to work? If you’re a small engineering firm, you might establish a 4-5 state region. By contrast, a small consulting firm might work anywhere in the world. Focus only on those regions where you’ll proactively focus your efforts. If a client comes in from outside that geography that’s fine. But don’t put your proactive energy there. Be as specific as you need to be.
Having described a faceless set of companies, now your task is to dive inside that framework to describe the people you work with. After all, consulting services are delivered by people and bought by people. A demographic profile should include:
- Roles — Be clear on what part of the business you work with. Are you partnering with the operations function? The marketing function? The strategy office? If it’s a combination of functions focus on which function tends to be your client sponsor.
- Levels — Describe the level within the organization where you are normally hired. Be realistic. Just because you want to work with the COO doesn’t mean you always do. Are you also working with director-level and management-level folks? It’s okay to include a couple of levels to cover both where you prefer to operate and where you sometimes do.
- Titles — Take the time to list out all the ways someone might describe themself. After all, the EVP of Marketing, SVP of Marketing, or CMO could essentially be the same job depending on what company or type of company you’re working with.
- Education — What level of education has this person typically attained? Where did he or she go to school? What did they study? Are you routinely working with Ph’D’ed experts? Recent grads? Are your best clients likely to have studied something different than their current occupation? How does that shape your client relationship?
- Experience — When you think about your best relationships, what prior experience did those clients bring to the table? What did their career path look like before they hired you? How has that experience shaped the way they engage and work with you?
- Behaviors — These are a simple set of questions, but they’re often difficult to answer. Where do they hang out professionally? What journals do they read? What conferences do they attend? What peer groups do they rely on? Where can you meet them if they’ve never heard of you?
Now that we’ve described the organizations and people we typically do business with (or would like to do business with), now it’s time to drill down into what makes them tick. This is the space we explore to connect ourselves philosophically with the people we do business with. As Seth Godin likes to say, “People like us do things like this.” (I know. It physically pains me to quote Seth Godin…it’s like dragging nails on a chalkboard). It’s also the space we mine to discover and develop compelling points-of-view that draw potential clients to us. An effective psychographic profile should include:
- Pressing Issues — What are the biggest, most difficult challenges your clients face right now? What level of confidence do they have in their organization’s ability to solve them? Which of those challenges are most likely to receive budget priority?
- Thoughts on those Issues — How are clients thinking about those issues now? How are they solving them currently? How effective are those solutions? Are existing solutions meeting their expectations? If not, why not? If so, what other challenges are left unresolved?
- Feelings on those Issues — How is your client feeling about these issues? Frustrated? Excited? Curious? Skeptical? Apprehensive? All of the above?
Clearly working through psychographics is the hardest part. You’re not going to have all the answers because chances are good, you’re not that far inside your clients’ heads (unless of course you’re Facebook….). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Having empathy with your ideal client’s unique business situation is critical to your ability to help them. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask them. Every client, everywhere, every time likes to talk about their business and the challenges they face. Ask them, listen carefully, and look between the lines.
As my podcast co-host, Jeff McKay, likes to say, “You can never go wrong if you start with the client.” But do you really know who your ideal client is? Or is it just a fuzzy idea wrapped around the phrase, “We know our clients!” If it is, go the extra step. Work together with your leadership team to agree on your ideal client profile. If you’re stuck, contact us for help.