When I first started my business, I decided to hire a coach. I knew nothing about coaches, consultants, or resources available (and back then, we had fewer choices, too).
So I made the worst move possible. I hired a coach who claimed to be focused on helping people reach their goals. The truth was, I needed specific “how-to” information. There was no point in writing down goals and making vision boards: I needed substance.
Eventually, I attended classes and began to learn what to do.
What I didn’t realize was this: When you’re new to a business, or you reach a stuck point, it’s tempting to hire someone to work with you as a consultant or coach. You may even go to a networking meeting and hear someone say, “I wouldn’t be anywhere without my coach.”
But that person may be at a different stage. In my earliest stages, I learned the most from my skills coaches — both copywriting and WordPress. I studied copywriting, so I could produce credible marketing materials. I took a workshop in WordPress websites, which saved me a small fortune over the years. While those trainings were focused on skill development, I also gained a new mindset and a picture of how-to marketing.
My clients now ask for advice when they get stuck. Here’s what I share with them.
Distinguish between a business consultant and a business coach.
A Huffington Post article from a few years ago made this distinction:
“A business coach works with you to develop the skills you already have. They work to bring out the “best” of you…A business coach helps you develop your purpose, brainstorms with you, and motivates you in your business…
“A business consultant is more of an expert you turn to for help with your business. They teach you skills you don’t know, analyze your business, and create an action plan for you to implement.”
In practice, there’s quite an overlap. I definitely fall into the consulting arena. I’ve accumulated expertise in online marketing, especially messaging, branding, and copywriting. When clients sign up for my programs, they seek answers to questions.
But my clients don’t feel like they’re attending a class where I’m lecturing to them. We also brainstorm ideas and talk about purpose. And while we rarely focus explicitly on motivation, they often come away feeling energized and motivated — a natural result of making progress and overcoming obstacles.
At the same time, I “coach” the way a basketball coach works with players on a team. Of course, I instruct and share tips but I also encourage and supply an outside perspective.
And many people with coach training, who consider themselves coaches, also are top business people who teach and guide.
Focus On What You Need To Do The Job
These days we often use the terms interchangeably and, yes, incorrectly. But titles aren’t really important when it comes to getting what you need. You’ll be more likely to get the most helpful support when you focus on what you need to take the next steps in your business or complete a specific action step.
Here are the 3 most common reasons business owners hire coaches or consultants.
Being self-employed means you’re your own boss. In a corporate setting, your boss sets deadlines. Often you’re told what to do each day. Missing a deadline means consequences.
But once you’re on your own, you make your own schedule. Sure, if you don’t work your bank account will notice the difference…but not right away.
The best coaches operate like organizers. Instead of organizing your house or office, they organize your time. They’ll ask you to check in every week or two and report on what you’ve done.
If you haven’t met your activity goals, the good coaches will remain non-judgmental. They will work with you to decide first if you really want this goal, and then figure out how to prioritize the activity you haven’t gotten around to.
Many business owners claim an accountability coach saved their businesses. “I didn’t realize how much time I was spending on the wrong things,” they’ll say. Or, “I’m getting more done in less time.”
Do you need accountability?
Before hiring an accountability coach, ask yourself, “Why am I not getting things done?” You may not need accountability; you may need another resource.
Scenario 1: You keep getting stuck on how to accomplish each step as you go about your business.
For instance, you start to work on your next online course offer. You begin to wonder, “Am I on the right track? Do I have substantial benefits to offer?” You start to write the sales letter, but halfway through you realize you could use some help with the copy. so you put it aside and work on a blog post. Then you wonder if you’re sending the right message. And so on.
You don’t need accountability. You need training or coaching on demand, so you reach out when you need support; for instance, my video coaching program lets you ask questions as often as they come up. You don’t get caught up in question like, “Is there a better way to write my headline” or, “Should I get a new email service.”
Scenario 2: You’re clear on your business goals. You know exactly what to do and once you’re in the flow, you keep working. You see results from your marketing, so you know your skills are up to par.
But you’re easily distracted. You find yourself prioritizing less important things, such as finishing a blog post, rather than more critical activities, such as reaching out to past clients for follow-up.
You could hire a coach who will meet with you weekly and keep you accountable. A good coach will work with you to overcome hidden beliefs that hold you back.
Alternatively, instead of hiring a coach, you may prefer to meet regularly with a colleague by phone, skype, or in-person. For instance, one writer met weekly with another writer for three whole years. Each would speak for 30 minutes on what they’re doing, what they’ve accomplished, and where they need help. That writer says, “I’ve started a successful freelance business and written two books since we began doing this.”
Most importantly, your motivation may go up as you see success from your efforts. If you don’t see this pattern, you might need to consider finding a new business or new business model.
You sense your branding is fuzzy. You’re attracting the wrong clients. Or you don’t have a clear sense of the niche you should be targeting.
Strategic coaches (or consultants) can be pretty direct. “Focus on newly divorced women instead of newly graduated professionals,” they might say. Or, as I often say, “Choose your niche by the problems you solve, not by demographics.”
When it works this type of coaching can be extremely powerful. Clients have told me, “I’ve turned my business around after just one suggestion.”
Do you need a strategy coach?
(a) Are you solving a significant problem?
Before you hire a coach or consultant, ask yourself these two questions:
Are you solving a painful problem that people know you have?
Do you have the credibility to be accepted as an authority?
If you can’t answer yes to both those questions, you might try some one-off sessions with a strategy coach. However, it’s rare to get answers from an outside source. These points get at. the core of your business. You have to be excited about reaching those goals!
(b) On the downside, be wary of coaches who “sell” their ideas and/or dismiss yours quickly. For instance, a coach might dismiss an idea with, “That’s not you.” Another might take the opposite tack: “If you feel it’s not you…why not? Maybe it is.” Or even, “You’re resisting me.”
Keep your intuition active. Nobody’s advice will be 100% wonderful but you don’t need to spend your sessions talking your coach out of something or into something else. Generally, choosing the focus of your business, along with your message and brand, must be done by you.
As part of my copywriting consultations, I used to talk about helping people find their “fab factor,” i.e., “What makes you fabulous?”
A very experienced coach encouraged me to build my business around that question. As I dug into sales letters and blog posts, I soon realized two things. I didn’t resonate with the word “fabulous.” And people didn’t see “becoming fabulous” as a must-have. He was surprised and disappointed when I told him I didn’t want to move in that direction.
(c) “Why don’t you look into X niche” works only if your consultant knows your industry.
A business consultant suggested I get more clients in the financial field. It sounded good until I explored the field. Would I pursue financial publishing (intense and competitive), personal finance (not particularly lucrative) or individual financial planners (terrific clients but usually constrained by limited budgets and regulation). This consultant simply didn’t understand the way copywriting clients operated.
(d) Make sure your branding advice can be implemented, i.e., translated into copywriting for marketing materials.
One client came to me after working with a coach who believed in finding archetypes for her target market. That was fine, but her archetypes were things like “unicorn” and “knight in armor.” It was impossible to translate into actionable copy.
A coach suggested I brand myself around “coffee.” (I’m not making this up.) She said, “You’ve got so much energy! What about naming your products after espresso, cappuccino, or decaf?”
There were two problems with this approach. First, energy isn’t a particularly valuable benefit. And second, people wanted to know “what’s in it for me?” right away. If they wanted a cappuccino they’d be down at Starbucks.
Do you need to improve a skill to move ahead in your business? I’m biased, but every successful online marketer I know has studied copywriting. You can take courses in sales, graphics, or even how to use WordPress to set up your website. Launching an offer, webinar marketing, email marketing and creating your opt-in sequence might also be considered skills.
Facebook ads, google analytics and google adwords all could be considered skills: you can figure out a lot on your own, but it’s like learning to play a sport. A good trainer or coach will help you avoid the pitfalls, just as a tennis coach shows you how to hold your arm for a stronger serve.
If you really need the skill, the investment will pay off immediately. But that’s the rub: do you really need to learn this skill?
Entrepreneurs tend to be lifelong learners. It’s tempting to decide to learn a skill you don’t really need. I must admit I succumbed to a course on Photoshop because I love playing with design. I do use what I’ve learned but I have to be careful not to spend too much time on design – a skill I will always need to outsource. I know when a project calls for a $5 Fiverr designer and when I need a pro on a much larger scale.
On the other hand, after learning even the rudiments, I’m better equipped to hire a designer. I am not qualified as a Photoshop expert, but I know what can be done with Photoshop, what takes a long time, and what should be a quick $5 fix from Fiverr.
Do you need to hire a coach?
When you need skills, there’s no point in hiring a strategy coach. Find a course you can take, online or offline. Sometimes you don’t even need to pay. Go to YouTube and search on, “How to learn how to…”
The downside of YouTube is the courses often aren’t well-thought-out or organized. You may need to work your way around half a dozen videos.
You can also get started at a low cost with platforms like Udemy, Skillshare, and CreativeLive. There’s a huge variety in quality among the course offerings. Buy only what you’ll use right away so you can qualify for a refund if the course just doesn’t work for you. Lynda, one of the best-regarded course platforms, has been bundled as a free offering from some public libraries.
Most people hire skills coaches after taking a class. To learn a skill effectively, you need a combination of practice and feedback. That’s how the famous “10,000 hours of practice” turns you into a pro. You usually won’t need that many hours, but you will need focused practice with professional feedback.
Sometimes my own clients will sign up for a course and then ask for private one-on-one follow-up. Or they’ve taken just enough courses to understand the basics; they want ongoing guidance as they implement. Or they usually do well on their own but want guidance for a specific high-value opportunity.
When you want to develop your own skills, choose a program where you’ll get access over a period of time. With strategy, a one-off session often gets the client in shape for branding or positioning. But you’ll need time to develop your skills. Many coaches have programs that allow you to ask quick questions and get answers for a period of three to twelve months. For instance, I offer video coaching; clients can send in their copy and get fast feedback, as often as they like.
Skill coaching often comes with a bonus, whether you sign up one-on-one or as a course. Typically you’ll be going back and forth with the coach as you try different options or even carry out assignments. You’ll have built-in accountability as you’ll be motivated to complete assignments and you’ll get fast feedback.
When you’re at a point in your business where you feel you need support, it’s tempting to hire whoever’s calling with the most tempting offer. A lot of business owners find that hiring the wrong form of support can actually set you back.
You need to figure out two things. What do you need to learn? And how do you typically learn?
I’d also encourage you to be honest with yourself. How do you learn? In a class? From reading? From doing?
Personally, I learn from classes and from taking action. I’m a kinaesthetic learner: watching a demo rarely helps; I have to do it.
I also tend to resent accountability coaching. If I’m not doing something, it’s because on some level, I don’t want to, and I need to figure out why. I can’t handle reporting weekly to someone on “What I Did This Week.” It feels like having a nanny.
If you’ve never worked on personal growth with a therapist or group, you won’t benefit from a life coach. Don’t even bother.
Once you’ve identified those two things – what you need and how you operate – you’ll be in good shape to hire support that will actually help grow your business. Until you’ve reached that point, you’re just throwing money at a problem.
I know. We’ve all been there.
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Excellent analysis of the different types of coaching – I would add a fourth type – the coach who is neither trained nor experienced, who has limited business experience and knowledge and who just listens and listens, makes a few comments and suggests a couple of things to do. I’ve not used a coach – ever – but I am one and I’ve heard a few of this type of coach in action. I call this type of coaching ‘Take your money and hope you, the coachee, feel you’re getting some value’. Should I feel sad about this or is this type of ‘coaching’ OK if the coachee likes it?
Gilllian, Thanks for the comment! Interesting idea. Lots of coaches are trained to “just listen.” It would be interesting to explore further.
Ryan Eliason says
I have been a business owner since I was a teenager and now I am a business coach. I completely agree with the three categories. However, coaches don’t always fit so neatly into one category or another. My programs have strong elements from each category.
Ryan – I absolutely agree with you! The key is to make sure clients get just what they want (and I am sure you do that). If they don’t want accountability coaching, they’ll go nuts if you ask for updates and schedules… at least, that’s how I am with my own coaches!
DeAnna Troupe says
This is an excellent breakdown of the different types of coaching. I never would have thought to explain coaching in this manner. Keep up the good work.
Thanks, De Anna! I really appreciate your comment. Thanks for stopping by and especially thanks for the comment.