Getting better at the wrong things

Are we optimizing for the wrong clients?

The astronaut Chris Hadfield once provided perhaps the most important lesson in all of business, life, and marketing:

“No matter how bad a situation is,” he wrote, “you can always make it worse.”

It’s true that when our business is struggling, our instincts are often exactly wrong.

We respond to pressure with speed.

We respond to neediness with effusiveness.

We respond to competition with aggression.

We respond to price-sensitivity with discounts.

And we can end up telling ourselves and others stories like, “My customers need to compare prices.”

Or, “My clients need to be wined and dined.”

Or, “In my industry, we have to respond to RFPs.”

But these are not universal complaints, because they are not universal truths.

Usually, we’re just making things harder on ourselves.

So when I hear these statements, I sometimes try to ask a few delicate questions:

Is it true that every customer talks you down on price?

Is it true that every job you get is the result of a competitive pitch process?

Is it true that every new piece of business requires endless schmoozing and politics?

Or is it true that only your most difficult projects and clients come that way?

Then, I try to get the person to consider their very best clients or projects.

Isn’t it true that your best customers or clients aren’t price-sensitive at all?

Isn’t it true that your best projects are won on your own unique merits, not because of a competitive pitch process?

Isn’t it true that your best clients don’t want to be entertained, they just want great work?

Then, I simply ask:

Which type of clients are you spending more time attracting?

Are you optimizing your business to find more of your most difficult types of clients and projects, or more of your best?

Are you doubling down on pitches, presentations, and meetings? Are your marketing materials—like your website, ads, and proposals and sales decks—focused on overcoming objections from your most difficult prospects?

Or are you staking out a unique position that makes you the best option for a particular client?

As one writer and business strategist put it, “Nothing has sunk more creators and caused more unhappiness than this: our inherently human tendency to pursue a strategy aimed at accomplishing one goal while simultaneously expecting to achieve other goals entirely unrelated.”

We can end up pursuing a strategy aimed at our most needy, our most challenging, and our most price-sensitive clients, while simultaneously hoping to attract clients who aren’t like that at all.

But to get the clients we want, we need a strategy that’s aimed in their direction, at their needs, wants, and hopes for the future.

Because getting more and more price-sensitive clients doesn’t make our lives any easier if we can’t afford to keep it up.

Getting faster at responding to RFPs doesn’t make us any more efficient if we don’t want those projects.

Getting better at networking and schmoozing doesn’t make us any happier if we’d rather spend our time doing great work.

We want to be respected for our work. We want to be seen as uniquely capable of helping our ideal clients.

We want to be valued.

And we’ll never be valued by clients who are only interested in getting a deal.

Our work won’t be valued by clients who only want the added perks of working with a big name. Or who only want to work with people they already know. Or who want the work for free and will decide whether to pay for it later.

Instead, we want to find clients who want to work with us because we’re the best.

Which means we need to focus on being our best, on doing our best for our best clients.

We need to optimize our efforts to demonstrate our value to the people most likely to want it, most likely to need it, most likely to be happy to pay for it.

As one economist said, “Don’t go to great trouble to optimize something that never should be done at all.”

Instead, we need to get better and better at being the best, for the clients who want to work with us more than anyone else.

So think about your best clients, your best projects, your very best customers.

And figure out what they have in common, what struggle they all face, or what unique element of your business they especially appreciate.

And focus your efforts there—on getting more of your best. Instead of doing what everyone else is doing.

Which is merely hoping for the best, while optimizing for the worst.