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The Myth Of The Ideal Client

By October 25, 2013November 5th, 2014Marketing Insights & Strategy
The Myth Of The Ideal Client

One of the first things a marketer will tell you to do as you embark on your business journey is to spend some time creating a picture of your “ideal client”.

Who is this person? What do they do? What do they want? What keeps them up at night? Do they like ketchup or mayo on their fries?

You’re encouraged to create as complete a picture of this perfect person as you can. This will be the go-to image that you’ll use to measure your prospects against whenever you need to decide who to do business with and who to send on their merry way to a competitor.

The problem with the ideal client is right there in the name – ideal.

“Perfect people”.

How many times have you heard that one? Follow your passion and find your perfect people.

That’s nice if we’re all sitting around singing Kumbaya, but take it from someone who has been in the business of marketing for 15 years and the business of people for 22: there is no such thing as perfect.

Here are a few of the problems with this magical thinking and a few ways you might want to think about your “people” instead.

Your Ideal Doesn’t Exist

Are you married? Coupled up? Ever been on a date?

Then you know that somewhere along the line you probably had a vision of who you wanted to be with. Someone honest. Trustworthy. Funny. Adventurous. Someone who picks up their socks off the floor on a regular basis or cleans out the garage without being asked. Someone who likes long walks on the beach and banana splits.

And then you met Reality.

Reality is maybe you pick up the socks, and learn to put “clean out garage” on the calendar once a year.

Reality is maybe you stay home and watch reruns of Lost on Netflix instead of skydiving.

That doesn’t mean you’re unhappy, it just means that you got real about the person you’re with.

Your clients are much the same. People. Never perfect.

Losing Sight Of Reality = Frustration

Have you ever had a conversation with a client and hung up the phone or left the room thinking, “I wish this person was a little more patient/listened to my ideas/didn’t complain so much/paid my invoices on time?”

In an imperfect world full of imperfect people, we have to remember not to get so caught up in our ideals that we lose sight of what’s in front of us. The more we focus on ideal people, the less we like the real ones.

I have a client who I love, who is clear about his objectives, reasonable about paying us, on board with my suggestions. Except every time he calls he likes to chat and I know it’s going to be a half hour conversation about non-work related stuff.

Instead of getting frustrated or worse, putting him off until he went away (possibly to a competitor) I learned to take a breath and settle in for a half hour of conversation. I discovered it could be rather entertaining. Is it ideal, to be sitting on the phone making no money and talking about summer vacations? No, but imagine what I might have lost if I’d insisted only on ideal.

You Avoid Or Miss Opportunities

Before we began developing in WordPress at my company, we were very Microsoft-centric. We developed a lot in .NET and similar languages for clients who needed content management.

Those smaller clients with simpler needs were not ideal for us and when the first few WordPress opportunities came along we took a “no way” approach.

At some point I decided to take a look at this WordPress thing.

And do you know what I discovered? It was the perfect opportunity to service clients with less complex needs, for less money, in a shorter amount of time.

Now we do a ton of WordPress work and we still do custom programming outside of WordPress for larger scale content management projects.

No friction means no growth and if you fixate on ideals, you can miss opportunities to fill gaps in your business. Sometimes you have to step out of the boundaries you’ve given yourself and try something new.

Sometimes It’s Good Enough To Get The Check

You aren’t going to be in love with every client you work with. If you have the time to spend looking for those people and the money to live while you do, then good for you.

Most of us just need to eat.

Sometimes when we look for these perfect people, we attach all sorts of emotional qualities to the process. We create a wish list of what we want in a person – that perfect person who we want to have a beer with, who has a certain lifestyle and a very specific way of behaving.

But those kinds of people are called friends.

Call one up. Have a beer.

When it comes to business, who is going to pay the bills?

Sometimes we get projects that I love with people who I enjoy. But sometimes we get projects that are… er… less entertaining and more work, much like the clients who bring them. Sometimes, I want to jump out a window and abscond to a deserted island with a lot of cupcakes and forget these people exist.

But that’s about me, not about them. And ultimately we’re in the business of servicing – not perfect people, but people. Sometimes our business is not about us but about those imperfect people we claim to serve.

If we can perform a job well, make the client happy and get paid… I’m surely not going to pull out my “ideal client” checklist and argue the point. How about you?

The Difference Between Buyer Personas And Ideal Clients

Often when you hear the words “ideal client” or “perfect people”, someone literally wants you to invent a person with all of the qualities that you want most in a client.

But chances are you didn’t add “and sometimes yells at me” to your list of personality traits. The problem is that those things will happen. People are complex. Their business needs are complex. You’ll never nail down all the nuances.

But that doesn’t mean you should go out and start selling haphazardly to just anyone. That’s where your buyer personas come in – traits that your clients exhibit that relate directly to what you’re offering.

It’s a problem-solution scenario instead of an exercise in fiction. Instead of thinking about who you want to work with, you start to think about who would want to work with you – and more importantly, why.

What do they need? What are their challenges and how can you provide the answers they’re looking for?

You can add details about socio-economic status and lifestyles here, too, because those things will affect how much someone can afford, what their disposition is toward buying and whether or not your products, services and business culture will be a good fit for them.

It pays to think about business relationships as a two way street – not you simply laying down some white stripes that your clients must travel between if they want to be deemed adequate enough to work with you.

So forget for a while about your perfect people and start thinking about the people who make a good match for the products and services you provide. It will prevent you from engaging in magical thinking and ending up disappointed, aggravated and ultimately broke.

Do you have a vision of your “perfect people”? How about buyer personas? Tell me in the comments, and if you need help defining yours, let me know!

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • clarestweets says:

    So true! I think that’s why developing customer/client personas has replaced ideal client in the modern marketing organization. Personas are more fun too because you can create real characters not just “characteristics.”

  • Kimberly Crossland says:

    Buyer personas are definitely critical. Without having a buyer persona in mind, your website copy and overall marketing becomes scattered and unfocused which can be confusing, and turn away a lot of people.

    In terms of the “perfect people” or “ideal client” I try to urge my clients to think about the people they best serve. That turns it around on their abilities which can eventually bring out a lot about the people they want to attract. Not necessarily the perfect person that they want to work with, but the people that they can best help solve a problem. This usually takes away the high expectation of attracting PERFECT clients that fit their mold and instead brings reality in that yes, they may chat on the phone for a little too long, but overall you are the best match for that person because you work well with them and serve their needs.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to expectation management on both ends. It’s important to have reasonable expectations of your customers, and of the people you hire. It’s OK to not want to work with everyone. You have to know where to draw the line with your customers, even if sometimes that means them going to a competitor.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      You said it! That whole idea of “perfect people” is something that I think is relatively new. The phrase floats around a lot and a lot of new people think they have to find someone they want to have a beer with rather than someone they can help with their products and services. Nobody ever set out saying “I want to work with someone crabby who hates puppies” but you know what, there is a difference between a personality and a persona! Focus on the business aspect and forget the fuzzy emotional stuff.

  • Frederic Gonzalo says:

    Love this post, Carol Lynn. Dead on, in my opinion! Indeed, it’s not about seeking perfect, but about shooting for “as good as it gets”, I believe. Everybody, and every company, has weak points and weak links, but at the end of the day, it boils down to looking at the positives, looking at the negatives, and throwing it all in a big, fat balance, and see where it tilts. If it leans more on the negative side, I say ditch the client or at least assume it won’t be much fun to work with. And focus on clients whose balance tilt on the positive side, for these are the ones that can make your life more enjoyable, and everybody wins along the process.
    Cheers and have a great weekend!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      “As good as it gets”… so true 🙂

      You’re right, there are positives and negatives all the time. We have to be smart and balance them out. If we can do that, we win!

  • Adi says:

    It’s kind of a symptom of the push mentality that’s pervaded in business for much of the last century isn’t it? We make this and we sell it to this customer. We’ll then use broadcast media to bombard that demographic with advertising.

    Not only do those generalised personas not exist, but we now live in an age of pull, where customers can order exactly what they want.

    As Joe Kraus famously said:

    “The 20th Century was about dozens of markets of millions of consumers. The 21st Century is about millions of markets of dozens of consumers”

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Ah, interesting! And so true. We can be so much more specific now that we have the ability to connect with people on social media. Back in the day of tv and radio, you have this big, general audience. Now you can pinpoint down to a specific person.

  • Gazalla Gaya says:

    Excellent post, Carol Lynn. It’s almost as if you were speaking to me and advising me. I tend to want clients that I can buddy up with and I’ve realized that it’s more important these days to find a client that has a need for what you are offering. That is your ideal client and ideal target market as well. I also think that it’s important to be emotionally intelligent in any relationship, business or personal and so your attitude also determines your interactions and business success. Thanks for an enlightening post.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      I know the feeling, I have to remind myself of that sometimes too! When you have a business (not just a “job”) and you like what you do, it’s tough to separate business and personal. So it’s easy to fall into the idea of wanting fun people to work with. Sometimes you find them, sometimes you don’t! And to your point, you have to deal intelligently with whoever your clients are.

  • cynthia says:

    Just read your bio, the last line of
    which gave me reason to smile ; ).

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      I had to go back and read it lol… but yes, it’s a lovely 70 degrees in Barcelona right now… dreaming…

  • Adrienne says:

    I remember hearing when I first came online Carol from Frank Kern. He’s the one who hammered into my heads to visualize the “ideal client”. He said to think about what they’re wearing, where they worked, where they lived, etc.

    He then later told us that when he became successful he met a few of his “ideal clients” in person and they were exactly how he envisioned them. So that made me think. Okay, all of his clients must look and dress alike. How weird is that. lol..

    I couldn’t ever really do that myself so I just started concentrating more on the people who are willing to do the work, the ones that want this bad enough, the ones that are here for the right reasons. Those are the ones I want to work with the most and they started showing up. I don’t care how they look, what they wear or where they live. I could care less about any of that.

    I just want them to have the desire to get the work done and the rest just comes with it. They’re actually more eager to pay me before we start our sessions. Now that’s the “ideal client” my friend. 😉


    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Sounds like you know exactly how to find the RIGHT clients! I understand the reason for the exercise in thinking about all the little details of a person, so you can visualize the clients you want to work with. But it’s a little bit amateur. Like you said, it’s what you learn to do first when you’re just learning about marketing, then after a while you realize you need the clients who need YOU and that nobody is going to be the same as your imaginary “idea client”. And I totally agree – if there;s work you can do and get paid for, it works for me!