Get your first client already: Tough advice for new coaches (and nostalgia for those who have already done it)

I’ve been working with aspiring coaches for well over a decade. Nothing in my work is more fulfilling than watching a new coach get his or her first client. The palpable relief and joy that the coach experiences when this happens is incredible.

Some coaches get clients faster than others. Some really struggle. When you first start out, it feels like you are pushing a boulder up a hill. It takes 10 units of energy to feel like you are getting one unit back. The good news is that, after your first client or two, you achieve momentum, as if the boulder was on a plateau. In some cases you can even get yourself positioned so that it feels like the boulder is rolling down hill.

The executive and leadership coaches that tend to get clients fastest tend to have these attributes:

  • A significant track record of accomplishment and documented results in their past work.
  • A strong network of decision makers, or the willingness to get out there and build one.
  • The courage to choose a viable niche, rather than be all things to all people.
  • The discipline to do the hard work needed to get a client.
  • The ability to get results using the best practices in coaching conversations.

There are many reasons why coaches struggle to get their first client. One of the biggest is that the coach over thinks things:

  • What do I need for my website?
  • What do I need for LinkedIn?
  • What’s my niche?
  • How do I get visible in my market?
  • How do I approach prospects?
  • What if they object?
  • How do I write a proposal?
  • What kind of fees should I charge?
  • Should I call myself a coach or a consultant?
  • Do I write a book?
  • How do I do webinars?

Sometimes I get emails the length of a Stephen King novel from coaches with all of their questions and concerns. They are such perfectionists and so analytical that they can’t get out of their own heads and into the marketplace.

Recently, my advice after a string of emails from one aspiring coach – someone with an incredible track record working with Navy Seals and corporate leaders, and some great training as a coach –  was to stop thinking and just get a client already. Instead, he is over thinking every single step in the process.

He has everything he needs. What is missing is action. Coaching is like any other business. You solve a problem that people have, have conversations with people until you find someone who has that problem, and then you ask great questions to find out whether the person wants to hire you or not.

If you don’t know which niche to choose, pick a problem you know people have in a target market and test it out. If you get traction, keep going. If not, pick a different problem or target market. Keep testing.

If you don't know what to call yourself, talk instead about the problems you solve and value you bring, and for whom.

If you don’t know what to charge, charge something that seems okay. This client won’t be your only client and you can always adjust upwards.

If the prospect asks for a proposal, ask him to write it with you, because you can’t read his mind.

If the prospect raises objections, ask why he raised that objection and answer it. If he raises too many objections, suggest that perhaps there is not a good fit and wait to hear what the prospect says.

If you wonder about how to close an engagement, just ask the prospect, “What do you want to do next?” They will tell you whether they are ready to close.

Keep having conversations. Have conversations to meet new people in your market. Have conversations with complementary professionals to refer business to each other. Have conversations to find places to speak or write or network. Have conversations to become a leader in places where decision makers will see you in action, like an industry association or local non-profit that needs board members. If you have enough conversations, and learn from each and every one about how to improve, eventually that first client will come.

Most importantly, don’t over think things. Get out there, get knocked down, get back up, and keep pushing the boulder up the hill.

I remember trying to climb a ropes course at the YMCA. I was out of shape and ran out of gas about halfway up. I also couldn’t figure out how to get past the overhangs and other obstacles. I wanted to give up. The instructor below kept shouting, “Take one more step.” That’s what I did, slowly and surely. It took a while, but eventually I made it to the top.

That’s what it takes to get that first client already: One more step!

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