Food for thought
To Sell or Not to Sell …
by Karsten Drath
Coaches and selling – a tough love
Imagine a scale: On one side of this scale it says “Helping Profession” and on the other side “Professional Service”. Both attributes are supposed to label the dominant perception of coaching in your mind. Depending on your experience in working with a professional coach in the business world you will probably place this profession somewhere along this scale.
It can be interesting exercise to ask coaches to position themselves on the same scale but that’s not for today. One would probably agree that on both sides of the scale some sort of business generation needs to take place. And this is where the challenge begins.
Coaches need to excel in more than just good listening
It is a fairly bad kept secret that only a small fraction of coaches can really live well from their profession. Most maintain parallel employment work or have to take on consulting or training work on top because they otherwise feel they cannot generate sufficient income. This is partially due to the fragmented nature of the business which consists of tiny “projects” of 3-10 days per client spread over timeframes of 6-18 months. The more dominant factor for these circumstances however, is that many coaches are great in asking thought-provoking questions and listening but find it difficult to sell themselves. This is particularly interesting as the basic idea behind coaching is the assumption that people can change if they decide to do so. At Leadership Choices, we have a framework to position the approach of a coach to business development which I would like to share with you.
Concretely, we differentiate between four distinct strategies which differ in the focus on existing vs. new relationships and the degree of follow-up. Each of the strategy can work under the right circumstances and each of them comes at a cost.
These coaches prefer to give the phone a chance to ring by sitting and waiting tenaciously next to it. I would argue that these make up for 75% of the total coach population (and 0% of the coaches at Leadership Choices). If they network they often do so with fellow coaches looking for “synergies” because here they meet people who are nicer and also safer than the business people – also called clients - out there. This strategy is extremely effective when you have a large book of business and are well known in the marketplace. If not you either go out of business or you end up at the bottom end of the food chain getting a little work here and there from coach brokers and networks.
These colleagues hold on to their existing corporate accounts as long as they possibly can. Over the years they understand the dynamics of that organization really well and know all the key players in-depth. They focus on generating extensions and proliferating the client base by generating recommendations and of course by delivering solid work. In my experience, this is the second largest population amongst business coaches. Again, this can be a very effective strategy – providing you have these anchor accounts. On the other hand, this strategy exposes you to a lump risk because your economic sanity is linked to one or two accounts and tides to change from time to time.
Another way of selling is giving people a chance to buy your services. This means that you have to develop a reputation for being an expert for coaching in combination with something else – ideally a combination which is in high demand. The combinations are only limited by your creativity. You can focus on women on their way to supervisory boards by cracking the glass ceiling with them or help engineers to become better in influencing. You can coach start-ups to get off the ground or help entrepreneurs to retire and hand over in style. The point is that such a reputation requires a lot of work and endurance to build. It is never enough to just do great work – you have to let the world know about it by some sort of writing or speaking. And this kind of exposure is yet another challenge for many and a lot of work, too. This is why these species of professionals is fairly rare.
There are some coaches who like building new relationships and they are very disciplined in their follow-up and maintenance of these. In my experience, these are pretty rare, too. They attend every social gathering they can get invited to and turn it into a networking event. Also, they are always on and never put off their “opportunity glasses” to identify a potential piece of interesting business. At times, this approach can feel like searching for the needle in the haystack and hence requires a lot of frustration tolerance. On the other hand, if you just keep on doing this for long enough you almost certainly will generate some sort of business from that. The rest has to come from your qualities as a coach then.
Of course, there are also variations of the above but I am firmly convinced that there is no magic shortcut to avoid the sweat and tears but also the joy and sweet taste of success going along with one of the above strategies. Please let me know if you disagree.
But more importantly: what is your strategy?
Karsten Drath works with top managers and their teams to improve their leadership effectiveness and resilience. He is a certified Executive Coach and Psychotherapist, a published author and keynote speaker, and is one of the Managing Partners of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. Looking back on more than 15 years of own leadership experience in several international roles he knows the challenges that come with the executive lifestyle and also how to cope with them.