It’s easy to define your ideal client—someone who needs your services and pays their bills, right? When you’re building your practice, that’s a good place to start. Any client looks like an ideal client at first, but after a few years in practice you begin to recognize the clients you want—and those you don’t. Better to have that recognition sooner rather than later, because then you can build the practice you want, rather than have it built for you by whoever comes in the door.
There are plenty of clients who need your services and pay their bills, but some of them are difficult to work with and some are downright expensive to serve. Then there’s the client who once gave you a great piece of work, but they’ll never have enough of it to keep you in business. On the other end of the spectrum are the clients who have plenty of work but expect big discounts for every minute of it.
An ideal client needs you, trusts you, and is therefore prepared to pay your going rate. They need you because they have an ongoing legal requirement, be it real estate or loan collection, securities or wills & estates. They trust you because you have delivered results for them and that’s why they don’t question your rate. They tell other potential clients about you (or will if you ask them to). They’re well connected and will introduce you to others in their industry. They’re easy to deal with: they don’t waste your time and don’t want you to waste theirs.
Your accounting department should be able to pull you a list of clients according to profitability, which is more than just the amount of the bill. (Does their work require a lot of expense that can’t be recovered? Do you end up discounting or writing off portions of the bill? Both circumstances eat away at profitability.) Now check the list of your most profitable clients to see which ones have referred work to you, then go through that list looking for things they have in common. These might be:
- Type of legal need
- Job level
- Professional associations
- Outside interests
- Charitable causes
- Educational level
All of these should be known, not assumed. If you don’t know—especially their concerns or problems—ask the clients on your list. When you start hearing the same concerns or problems, you know you’ve struck oil. Don’t expect those concerns to sound like legal issues: they’re just as likely to be a wish for someone who listens well, summarizes clearly, or makes the client feel like the problem is now shared. These are the important things to know about ideal clients: the flesh on the bones, as it were. Marketing jargon will talk about personas or even avatars and the internet is teeming with templates you can adapt to your own needs. Let’s say your ideal client for your business law practice of six lawyers is an owner-manager wanting to expand. Who does that type of client listen to? Where do they go for information? What do they read? What do they do for relaxation?
You might get some surprises that cause you to rethink your approach. For example, if your usual approach is to telephone clients to keep in touch, you may be surprised to find that they’d rather you send a text or email first. Far from being polite, telephone calls have come to be perceived as an intrusion, whereas an email can be answered at the recipient’s convenience.
You may end up with more than one ideal client profile, either for different services that you offer, or different circumstances, such as the ideal start-up or the ideal ongoing business. Once you know who your ideal clients are, you can develop services precisely targeted to their needs—and marketing precisely targeted to their wants. It is possible to attract the clients you want, even if you don’t have that type of client at present. The key is to be realistic about your ability to serve those clients and what you will need to do to attract them.
Ideal client profiles can be as simple or as sophisticated as they need to be. The important thing is to ensure that you can recognize an ideal client from the picture that you’ve built—and that you can describe your ideal client to others. It’s especially important to ensure that everyone who works for you knows your idea of an ideal client. The more they know about the kind of business you want, the more they can help you to get it.
And that’s as true for your receptionist as it is for your marketing department or consultant.