Know your client:
There are several aspects to this, beyond defining your niche, such as understanding their situation and language and having a sense of their evolving needs.
My choice of the Business Coach niche was a direct result of decades of small business experience and an MBA. I’ve played key roles in several companies and founded my own, so I can confidently and convincingly enter the coaching relationship with relevant background knowledge, even if I provide ‘pure coaching’. In practice, I mostly provide ‘blended coaching, at the client’s request. The client and I both know that I’m standing on solid ground, which helps build trust and confidence. The importance of this was born out in this interview.
Part of knowing your client also means knowing the language and trending topics. Besides continuing professional development for coaching skills, it means reading relevant books, magazines etcetera in your niche. This is about self-awareness – What is interesting for you? Where are you weak? The philosophy in business management is constantly changing. I need to keep abreast of the developments. It was critical to the success of the interview that I knew what he was talking about with ‘lean start-up’ and not just know of, but was reading one of the books he mentioned.
One general point was his shifting needs as his business experience grew. As his knowledge and needs changed, he sought different kinds of advice. Because he had not attended business school, his coaching provided the necessary practical technical knowledge during the early stages of growth, whereas now he recognizes that he needs ‘someone to kick his ass’. He’s in a stronger position for having the self-awareness of his needs and seeking out the appropriate source. While the early support sounded to me like training (involving a transfer of knowledge) rather than coaching (supporting the client to find the answers from his own knowledge), Simon called it coaching and is clearly benefiting from it.
At present Simon is finding benefit in a (fairly) transactional sort of coaching – where he knows what he needs to do, has told his coach, and simply asked her to be his accountability partner. This is, at least at this very early stage of the relationship – proving helpful. This is a different kind of support than what he needed and sought in the past.
The first three relationships were based on some sort of technical need – to write a business plan, to get the numbers right, or to get feed-back on social dynamics, or to structure a marketing strategy, and … I would say these are things that you can learn while you’re doing it. I mean, I’ve done these things a couple of times now, so I don’t really need that feedback anymore, and now it’s more this accountability thing.
That’s a significant level of awareness and action. I do wonder what gaps – if any – exist, that a deeper level of coaching would address. In fact, towards the end of our conversation, after he’d described the various kinds of coaches he’s had and how things have changed, he asked rhetorically ‘what kind of coaching would I choose now?’ This question went unanswered, but was intriguing nonetheless. It revealed both his ever-evolving use of coaching, as well as his rather loose application of the term ‘coach’, as he also talked of having a coach during the interview.
Curiously, although Simon’s business has grown significantly, he’s still dealing with behavioral challenges of procrastination, wasting time and setting priorities. This came as a surprise to me somehow. The good news for him is that he has recognized this weakness and sought appropriate support.
Demonstrate and provide value:
Prospective clients may not know the value of coaching, so we need to demonstrate it. Simon commented that many entrepreneurs don’t know the value, and that once they do, they really see it. In particular, Simon and I discussed how isolation is a big problem for entrepreneurs and business owners. They often have no one to talk to who is appropriate, so the coach provides a valuable sounding board and confidential space to talk through the issues and challenges they face.
This is something I see lacking for all these smaller companies, business owners, entrepreneurs that’s a kind of feed-back or exchange most of them don’t get. So … that might be something that could be interesting for you as a certain specialization, or a certain need that is latent but not blatant. … Because they don’t understand what they miss. Once they understand what it is, they see what benefits it brings to them. And I see, especially a lot of these small entrepreneurs, they don’t see these three different roles, and they don’t see the struggle they’re having, and they don’t have anybody to talk to, or if they do, they talk to friends and family and they’re not objective.
A further point was Simon’s perspective that now that his business is larger, the value of the relevant business experience is more important than a coaching technique. For Simon, it builds credibility and demonstrates understanding. He respects and will hire only those with relevant experience.
The interesting thing with this coach and EO, why I joined EO, is that when you are a member of EO, you only hang out with people who are in the exact same position. You can only become a member if you have started a company and make a minimum turn-over of $1 million and have 20 employees or something. So, you have to have a certain background and experience. The reason for me to join EO was that I like this social circle where I could talk about some things in a different way than you would talk to other people. I mean, there are just some things you will never discuss with employees and people who haven’t been in a similar situation. So, this need to join EO also goes hand-in-hand with this quality of coaching that I find in this new coach, because she knows what it means.
In contrast to the value he’s getting from the current and former coaches, each of whom provided coaching within their realm of knowledge, he sees no value, and in fat finds it laughable, that a former coach now offers workshops quite outside her knowledge and experience.
And at the beginning, it was really good, because what I got from her was a certain validation that what I was doing was ok … And talking to her now is a totally different experience. I wouldn’t say that I don’t take her seriously anymore, but now I see that she’s still in the mindset of a bank employee, so this slightly bureaucratic thing. … But once in a while she invites me to seminars on sales training, and just recently I got this invitation for like 3000 Euros and 6-day module and … I see myself thinking ‘she’s never sold anything in her life, and now she’s doing these seminars on sales training?’ and I just don’t buy it. It doesn’t really convince me. She’s very competent, knowledge-wise in this whole finance thing, but I don’t take her seriously when it comes to personnel, sales, building a structure, building a company because she’s never done it.
While Simon feels that experience at a certain scale is important, experience or knowledge in the particular industry is not, which is an interesting and helpful distinction.
The basic dynamics of starting and running your business are the same, across all industries. There are small differences, but I’m not trying to get feedback on certain KPIs that might change from industry to industry, it’s more defining what’s really the most important thing, and that’s something you can do for every industry. You don’t need to have any prior knowledge of the industry.
While I broadly see what Simon means, I think that there may be another element that may make a difference, which is the type of industry – is it retail or wholesale, service or manufacturing. An open question for me is how far outside vs inside is good? Maybe it’s just different, and not better or worse. Also, my sense is that the value of experience in the client’s situation likely differs across coaching niches, with executive and business coaching needing relevant experience to be hired and taken seriously. I have helped peer clients with life experiences I haven’t had, such as being married with children or living in a country I don’t know.
Define the roles and terms:
The client sets the terms and it’s important to be clear about what your role is at the outset. As already noted, Simon chose two early coaches because they had specific technical know-how, where-as he chose the current one because she’s been in his shoes. I would describe the earlier ones as more about training and knowledge transfer, but whatever the case, the task was clear. In the current one, he stated his need for accountability up-front. He also noted that the goal of the business defines the type of support that is needed at any given point, and I totally agree.
I’m telling her what I want her to do for me, so … Again, accountability is the big thing, and because she’s been an entrepreneur herself she can call me on something, that she doesn’t think is right, but it’s not really her job. It’s my responsibility to define what is really important and what I need to get done and she can question me, but if she does so, she only questions me on the basis of her own experience as an entrepreneur, but not on the basis of a certain technology, methodology.
Additionally, the technique we might value as coaches might not always be the right thing for the client. He noted the difference between a traditionally trained coach with a methodical approach and a looser approach based on experience, which is the right thing for him at the moment.
S: A traditionally trained coach would at least say, ‘well, this is not a methodical approach. This is just on-the-fly coaching or on-the-fly support but not a long-term methodical support system’, like you would have with this traditional marketing approach.
M: Ok. Interesting. But for you, this, what you’re describing as ‘on-the-fly’ is exactly what you want and you’re happy with it.
S: Yeah, because I don’t need this long-term thing anymore. I know where I want to go and I know basically what I need to do.
Rather, he needs someone who is familiar with his business situation, specifically a business that you’ve grown to a certain scale ($1 million is sales and 20 employees was the line he proposed). This is a reminder to be mindful and honest about what you know from experience.
This is also a powerful reminder that the seeking is client led. Sales as such need to use a pull strategy – where I draw people who have a sense of needing something. Maybe not what they need or how it would look, but that they have a gap and it needs to be filled. A push strategy – where I would convince someone they need what I have, or where I create the need – won’t work, because then the relationship is beginning with the coach’s needs, not the client’s. As Simon’s experience showed, where coaching to the key employees is initiated by the leader, it might be met with mixed responses, so that one person liked it and took him up on the offer, but another tried it briefly, likely had a bad experience and rejected it outright. Although it had been provided at no cost to her, she felt it wasn’t’ necessary and was a waste of money. Simon, as leader, had identified a need and made the resources available, but she didn’t share his view and rejected it.
Be aware of your behavior:
In transcribing the conversation, I noticed several of my verbal elements, most of which were good. For one, my tendency to drop in small utterance ‘yeah, ‘um-hum’, ‘ah, ok’, that signaled my listening and engagement while not interrupting the flow. This is a good thing. There were a couple times when I sensed our communication had fallen apart and in reflecting back or mirroring, I saw that it had. I also heard lots of reframing or mirroring followed by ‘is that correct?’ which was uniformly confirmed. The key element here is not to trumpet my skills, but to affirm that I exhibited these skills so central to a successful coaching session. One final habit that I noticed, and was already aware of but was startled and amused by nonetheless, is my penchant for repeating a word or more two, three even four times as I deeply consider what someone has said. Hopefully it’s not distracting.
Having had this initial experience, I think it will be helpful to record sessions periodically, with the client’s permission, so I can hear myself. As I intend to do additional interviews with entrepreneurs and small business owners, I will have the opportunity to increase my skills and self-awareness. Some points to focus on would include: What kinds of questions did I ask? Was I reflecting back and mirroring? Was I picking up clues or bringing the client back on track? Did I check for understanding? These are all things we talked about in the ICA program, and I was grateful for this opportunity to hear myself. It was an unexpected bonus.
I got valuable perspectives and will interview others in my target market. The intention is to gain a broader understanding of the needs and inspiration for seeking coaching, so as to be in a better position to approach the right prospects and provide a superior service. Another area that I will strengthen as a result of this interview is establishing pipelines between me and prospective clients. As already noted, Simon has reached all of his coaches through organizations. This is a win-win set-up. The organizations have provided both access and credibility.
Finally, his description of the current relationship reinforced my confidence in the focus I’ve outlined for Solomon Communications – entrepreneurs and small business owners who are at an inflection point and who are feeling isolated. I can readily provide these clients with an experienced external person, someone they can discuss their challenges, confusion, frustration with in a confidential and structured conversation. I know this need from personal experiences and Simon echoed that, as I’ve stated. One may have all sorts of people around who care about you and would help if possible, but are unlikely to be appropriate partners in the discussion. Family is too biased, too close to you and may well not have the experience to bring to bear. Employees are likely to be too affected by your decisions and are therefore biased toward solutions that are beneficial to them. It’s also mostly inappropriate to use them as conversation partners. One could follow a ‘radical openness’ philosophy, but most don’t and when not, then who is available to sort things out with? Even given a ‘radical openness’ approach, is it a good idea to air all issues so publicly? I would say not. At this point, bringing in a coach is called for.
These are my observations based on this one interview. No doubt my awareness and sensitivity to business owners’ needs and situations, along with opportunities to serve them, will expand as I speak with others. I look forward to this ever-widening perspective.
The interview transcript:
Our original language training work occurred in April-October 2012. The interview was conducted via Skype on Monday 22 September 2014. I have trimmed it modestly for clarity and flow. Gaps are marked.
Méli: Thank you for giving me your time. … The focus of this conversation is really your experience with coaching … you had done at HomeBase Lounge a couple of years ago in 2012. What was the impetus for getting the coaching?
Simon: Ok, so maybe I should give you a little background on the coaching I have had.
S: I had several coaches. … Before I took over this one space, I had a coach who specialized on financing for new ventures, and I worked with her for I think two years. Within this bank, what is it? I don’t know if you’re familiar with it … Investitionsbank Berlin.
M: IBB, yeah.
S: They have their own coaching company. It’s a subsidized company, so they have a pool of coaches you can choose from, and that’s how I got this coach.
M: That’s interesting. Ok.
S: I met her through some other friends and she said ‘If you want some coaching, I can get this funding from the IBB and we can do some coaching. So I got this funding and we had, I think, ten days of coaching for this print magazine I did back then. … So she helped me to write a business plan, putting together all the numbers we needed … and … preparing everything in a form the way the bank would like.
M: Ok, great.
S: I didn’t follow through on this magazine. And then after that I had another. I switched the coaches, and went with another coach I already knew. She is specializing on marketing. … And with her I worked on the marketing for HomeBase Lounge – finding out who the customers would be, market segmentation and all that. And I worked with her for two years, or something like that. This was also subsidized by the IBB. And with her, I think I also worked on the plans for taking over the new space, or the concept that took me to taking over the other space.
M: Ok. Uh-huh.
S: And then I went into this new space and I continued working with her … defining the market and where we wanted to go. And at that time I also worked with another coach. … I met her at a seminar on hiring the right people, and I liked what she did, so I hired her. I had those two coaches together, on the one side to bring together this mixed team because we actually had people coming from four sides, from my former company, from the place we took over, the team we had at HomeBase Lounge, and some other group I can’t remember. So we had this coach to help us bring us all together and I had this other coach to help me defining this whole marketing … I stopped working with those two coaches when I sold Haus Umgang … and started working with yet another coach, and funnily enough, was also in this IBB program, and I also knew her because she’s also part of the Entrepreneurs Organization. You might have heard of EO? It’s a world-wide network that started in the US. It’s for entrepreneurs, and you have to fulfill certain requirements to become a member, and she’s also a member. So, I switched to her because she’s an entrepreneur herself. She is not a trained coach, but she had her own companies and then she sold them and now she’s basically consulting with start-ups, entrepreneurs and that is something that I really appreciated, because, with this whole Haus Umgang story, I felt that the coaches I was working with … I mean, they had a great education and everything, but still lacked a certain understanding when it comes to what it means to be an entrepreneur, and that is a quality I found in this new coach. She had a completely different understanding of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. It’s less technical knowledge than a mindset or a certain resiliency that comes with certain challenges.
M: Yeah. Interesting.
S: … Just today I had my first weekly call. …. So we’re going to have a 30-minute call every week, … and I have to tell her what I actually did and what I’m planning to do the next week. … I’ve told her where I want to be in half a year, so she can match what I’m planning for the next week to where I’m saying I want to be in a half year.
M: … Fascinating, fascinating. Wow, what a wonderful plethora of coaching experiences you have had! I’m so glad I asked you to talk. Very interesting about your sense the earlier coaches, that they had the technical but they didn’t understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur. You mentioned resilience. Which is interesting. … So you’re finding that the business experience, especially the entrepreneurial experience is more valuable than coaching technique?
S: Yes, in my particular case, when I started Haus Umgang, I suddenly found myself in the position of being very lonely. Well, it’s lonely at the top, and all that. Well, there was not really anyone around that I could talk to, or to discuss these topics or problems, and um …
M: Well I remember you saying that to me when we talked about your situation.
S: Yeah. The interesting thing with this coach and EO, why I joined EO, is that when you are a member of EO, you only hang out with people who are in the exact same position. You can only become a member if you have started a company and make a minimum turn-over of $1 million and have 20 employees or something. So, you have to have a certain background and experience. The reason for me to join EO was that I like this social circle where I could talk about some things in a different way than you would talk to other people. I mean, there are just some things you will never discuss with employees and people who haven’t been in a similar situation. So, this need to join EO also goes hand-in-hand with this quality of coaching that I find in this new coach, because she knows what it means.
M: Ok. Interesting, interesting. So most of these relationships have been one-on-one coaching.
S: Yes. Well, …