All About Coaching
Criteria for a Successful Coaching Practice
by Ben Dean, Ph.D.,
Master Certified Coach
Founder & CEO, MentorCoach
I've discussed the need for a tightly defined market niche when marketing
a coaching practice (Dean, 1999). Most seasoned therapists would
agree there are major advantages for marketing a clinical practice
if you present yourself as having a specialty, as opposed to offering
yourself as a general purpose therapist who can work with any disorder.
This is even more true for a coaching practice when you expand from
a local to a national or international market (Beckwith, 1997; Godin & Peppers,
1999; Ries, 1996; Ries & Ries, 1998). It is much more effective
to market yourself virtually within a tightly defined coaching niche
than as a utility infielder who can coach anyone. Even if you want
to coach generally, it is useful to emphasize a market niche in your
of niche selection is one with which many therapists who become coaches
struggle. They often feel they have many of the coaching skills necessary
to add a coaching specialty. Indeed many tell me they have been coaching
for years without giving it that label. Yet how should they go about
selecting one niche to emphasize in their marketing?
are criteria I believe may be useful in considering potential coaching
niches. Many of these criteria are also relevant to niches for a
noninsurance psychotherapy practice. While not all criteria are essential
for a successful niche, they are all worth considering.
- Passion. Could
you, the coach, feel passion for the niche? Are these the kinds
of clients you would enjoy working with? Do you find the work you
will be doing meaningful and satisfying? A sidenote: Often you
cannot answer this question in the abstract. Sometimes you must
first interact with people in the niche-perhaps by offering a workshop
or privately interviewing niche members-before you begin to feel
the passion stirring. For those of us at midlife, this criterion
is essential. It is not sufficient to be able to be highly compensated.
The niche must be satisfying and fun.
Burning Need. Is
there an intense, perceived need for the niche in the minds
of your prospects? Are they truly concerned about the issue
which you can help them solve with your coaching? Almost invariably,
there must be some set of problems which you help clients in
your niche solve. The more intense their pain (or conversely,
the more attractive the benefit you help them realize), the
more quickly will the niche respond to your efforts.
- Underserved. Is
the niche underserved? You would not offer customer service training/coaching
to Nordstrom employees. They are already superbly served in this
arena. One of the things to research when considering a new niche
is how much training/coaching/consulting is already being offered
to the niche. All things being equal, a coaching practice will
grow faster in an underserved industry than in a highly developed
one that has many vendors trying to meet the given need.
- Precedent. Are
there already successful businesses "on the ground" in
this niche? When a clinician-colleague discusses potential niches
with me, I'm often reassured if they can show me already existing
local businesses that are serving this niche. That suggests that
most of these criteria may be met, not the least of which is that
people are now paying money to have a specific need addressed.
Coaches may make their approach to the niche unique by being the
first to deliver the coaching services "virtually" (by
telephone, E-mail, and the web). But they can be more assured that
there is a need that will be responsive to marketing than if the
niche has never been defined and addressed before. Either can work.
But some of the risk is reduced if you know there are others that
are successfully targeting the niche on a local level.
can you be "first" in your niche? Ries & Ries (1998)
argue for the strategy of picking a niche where you are first.
One way to do this is to take a successful coaching niche and
narrow it further. If you coach high school students to excel
on the SAT, you can be the first to develop a virtual (telephone)
SAT coaching practice. Or you can narrow the niche and be the
first to coach hearing-impaired high school students to prepare
for the SAT.
your prospective clients pay for your services? Can they, at
least, afford $150 per month for membership in your virtual coaching
groups? Will they pay? A niche comprised of graduate students
might be flawed in this dimension. A professional niche or one
comprised of small business owners may easily be able to pay
while taking the coaching as a business expense.
the niche truly narrow? See Ries (1996) for compelling arguments
for the counterintuitive importance of narrowing your niche.
Much better to offer business coaching to a narrow professional
industry (e.g., corporate housing services or lemon lawyers)
than to a broad group (e.g., all attorneys or "boomers" at
are members of the niche from a single professional group or
industry? This is not required, but it's a major plus. The problem
with a niche focusing on "Boomers" is that it cuts
across every professional group in the world. If you focus on
a subset of a specific professional group (e.g., sales reps in
the computer industry, police administrators), the niche is much
easier to penetrate. Your E-mail newsletter focuses specifically
on this group. You can market through its national and 50 state
professional organizations. You can forge alliances with suppliers
who serve this niche.
Coherent Group. Do
members of your proposed niche feel they belong to a coherent
group? It's a major advantage if they do. You're more likely
to have niche members forward your promotional material to others
if they know who the "others" are. You're more likely
to have the advantages of state and national professional organizations.
It's advantageous if as you specialize in the niche, members
can say with recognition about you, "She lives in my world." "She
clearly understands my issues." A coherent group? Lemon
lawyers. A more disparate niche? People needing assertiveness
- Money. Can
you in some way help your niche make money or improve professional
performance? Of course, this is not an essential criterion. But
all other things being equal, it is easier for clients to justify
staying with you month after month if you are helping them make
money or perform better professionally. If you want to help them
have balance in their lives, you may want to work on that indirectly
rather than making it the centerpiece of your marketing.
you find them? Can
you locate members of the niche? Can you find them in order to
be able to use the funnel of trust (Dean, 1999) and to begin
to develop a relationship with the universe of your prospects
you reach them? E-mail
is the most cost-effective way to market to potential prospects
over time. Do most members of your niche have access to E-mail?
If not, do they have FAX machines? If not, how are you going
to communicate with them over time? All-But-Dissertation students
as a niche may lack discretionary income, but they almost universally
have E-mail access and thus rate high on this dimension.
the niche's need for your services short-term or enduring? If
your niche is general business coaching for a specific professional
niche, the window of need of an individual or company can be
years or decades. Other niches by their nature are time limited,
such as postpartum depression, Y2K lawsuits, or preparation for
a professional exam. All things being equal, I'd prefer niches
with an enduring rather than time-limited need for my services.
It's far easier to serve existing clients than to have to continually
acquire new ones.
niche selection grinds you to a screeching halt, don't give up.
Consider developing a new niche with a partner. You can share
costs, brainstorm ideas, support each other, even split the investment
in a topnotch coach with whom you both could meet in a weekly
conference coaching call. You could partner with someone who
had deep experience in a niche, "covering" you while
you get up to speed. You could partner with an already successful
coach, either helping them enlarge the reach of their niche or
contributing that scarcest of all resources-time.
don't have an ideal niche, you can develop a coaching practice with
a less-than-perfect niche. You'll be learning a great deal about
virtual marketing and coaching which you can later quickly apply
when the right niche materializes. It is far better to learn by taking
action than to never begin at all.
Harry. (1997). Selling the invisible: A field guide to modern marketing.
B. (1999). Marketing a virtual coaching practice on a national scale.
The Independent Practitioner. 19 (3), 112-115.
B. (2000). The Therapist as Coach. (A free, monthly E-mail newsletter
available on the web at http://www.mentorcoach.com/ or
by calling 301.986.5688).
S., & Peppers, D. (1999). Permission marketing: Turning strangers
into friends, and friends into customers. NY: Simon and Schuster.
A.. (1996). Focus: The future of your company depends on it. NY:
L, & Ries, A. (1998). The 22 immutable laws of branding: How
to build a product or service into a world-class brand. NY: HarperCollins.
Ben Dean, Ph.D., is a psychologist in
private practice, a Master Certified Coach, and Founder & CEO
of MentorCoach, a virtual university that trains therapists to add
virtual coaching as a practice specialty. He is publisher of The
Therapist as Coach, a free E-mail newsletter, and may be reached
at www.mentorcoach.com or 301.986.5688.