Niche Criteria for a Successful Coaching Practice
by Ben Dean, Ph.D., Master Certified Coach
Founder & CEO, MentorCoach
Previously 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 virtual marketing
The issue 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?
Here 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.
- A 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.
- Be First. Paradoxically, 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.
- Discretionary Income. Can 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.
- Narrow Focus. Is 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 midlife).
- Industry Focus. Similarly, 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.
- A 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 training.
- 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.
- Can 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 over time?
- Can 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.
- Temporal Dimensions. Is 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.
- Partnership Niche. If 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.
If you 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.
Beckwith, Harry. (1997). Selling the invisible: A field guide to modern marketing. NY: Warner.
Dean, B. (1999). Marketing a virtual coaching practice on a national scale. The Independent Practitioner. 19 (3), 112-115.
Dean, 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).
Godin, S., & Peppers, D. (1999). Permission marketing: Turning strangers into friends, and friends into customers. NY: Simon and Schuster.
Ries, A.. (1996). Focus: The future of your company depends on it. NY: HarperCollins.
Ries, 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.