Birmingham, UK

Bursting the ideal client bubble

Bursting the ideal client bubble

Let's embrace the unusual client

My background is in marketing. I studied it. I applied the haloed methodologies with the same loyalty dog owners expect from their dutiful labradors. I believed the textbooks, the ‘gurus’ and inspirational talks. And I spouted out the mantras with a level of conviction the battling prospective leaders of our country can only aspire to emulate. (Slight exaggeration but you get my point.)

But recently I’ve started to doubt some of the marketing theory. Flaws that I can’t quite overlook because they simply feel out of step with the real world. One of those is the notion of an ideal client. It’s been niggling at me for a while.

What is an ideal client? Does it exist?

Ideal client is something most people in business development and marketing are fixated with. Crafting a client avatar is the foundation of a textbook marketing discussion. It’s a process crowned with its own acronym, which more or less makes it business gospel. (ICA if you’re wondering or Ideal Client Avatar).

But what is it?

An ICA is an imaginary character that embodies everything you dream of in a client. Literally down to the smallest detail. Google ‘customer avatar’ and you’ll be bombarded with tools and templates that will help you design your perfect client persona.

You’ll be asked to give them an age, a gender, occupation, income, hobbies, interests, a car and you’ll spend far too much time interrogating this imaginary person on what keeps them up at night worrying. Then, with the character assassination complete, you’ll assign them a quirky name like ‘Call Centre Colin’ to make the process seem a bit more fun.

The idea is you’ll then talk to this character directly with your marketing. But the problem is I don’t only want to talk to Call Centre Colin. What about Mumpreneur Miranda and Plumber Paul and, and, and…? I don’t want to be restricted.

But more concerning is if after all this customer soul searching, no one actually possesses this ideal collection of business chromosomes. Or maybe there’s only one Call Centre Colin who fits the bill. That’s no basis for a business.

And even more importantly, I don’t work with robots. My clients are real people, with real flaws, real quirks and real foibles. And I love to be surprised by what they have to offer. I don’t like the idea of putting people in boxes. And tightly defined boxes is what the ideal client methodology demands.

Thankfully, I’m not alone

I’ve been binge listening to the Janet Murray podcast while running for the last few weeks. I could probably write 10 blog posts about what I’ve learnt about building an audience, but Janet’s says it so much better herself (so you’re probably best to tune in and listen.)

But in a recent episode this notion of ideal client came up as part of a discussion, and it really encapsulated everything that’s been bugging me about the concept. In the episode in question (number 377 if you’re interested), Janet had a fellow copywriter, Jo Watson, in the hot seat. Among a lot of great tips about writing engaging copy, Jo and Janet talked about the notion of ‘ideal client’. And they ripped it to shreds.

“I think this [the ideal customer audit] is responsible for single handedly screwing up a lot of people’s businesses,” said Janet.

My interest peaked.

“The ideal client is someone who wants to pay you money for something that adds value to their business,” she continued.

Spot on in my book.

And she then gets to the crux of it by encouraging us to think beyond creating this fictional character and instead focus on:

“What have I got to offer? What skills have I got and who is out there that is willing to pay money for this?”

Jo was equally unconvinced by the ideal client approach saying:

“I’m not saying ideal client is wrong, or it doesn’t work – for some people it will work but you’re severely limiting yourself and you’re not necessarily going to find them.”

She then adds the killer point: “You’re turning yourself off to the opportunity of working with some great people.” 

And there is was, my greatest fear with the ideal client approach confirmed.

Ideal client - Jo Watson quote

For me, freelancing is about embracing the unexpected

Here’s my confession: I’ve never actually created an ideal client for my own business (I know, what a hypocrite.) It never felt right. 

The biggest appeal to me of freelancing is escaping the cushy warmth of a well-worn comfort zone. My favourite pieces of work are those that come from the most unexpected places, and that challenge me in ways I’m not always prepared for. Embracing these unusual clients has opened up doors that I would never have proactively knocked on with a rigid ideal client strategy.

So all hail the wonderfully unusual, totally atypical, completely baffling and tremendously unpredictable client. You’re exactly what my business thrives on.

My unusual client strategy

To conclude my ideal client tirade, I’ll end on this. I don’t want to chase someone who has zero interest in me. I want my ideal client to come to me because they want to work with me. I don’t expect them to have a specific turnover (enough to pay me will do) or a certain personality (serious or playful is ok with me). I want to work with them because they feel their quirks fit perfectly with my foibles.

My strategy for achieving this remains this – I’m being myself. Because what’s the point in moulding myself into what a fictional ideal client wants me to be? I’m too firmly grounded in the real world.



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