The market is flooded with self-purported "business coaches." Some are great—others, not so much. One thing that allows so many ineffective coaches to keep getting clients is that the term "business coach" is itself so vague. It isn't necessarily that we're awash in scam artists (though there sure are some), it's that many of the best-intentioned coaches are genuinely convinced they can help any business owner, in any industry, with any problem. In reality, that's far from true.
This poses real problems for entrepreneurs and professionals in serious need of coaching, but it also makes trouble for coaches themselves. If there's a mismatch between clients' needs and coaches' services—as there often is—the whole industry suffers. Here's a look at what coaches can do to make sure they're attracting clients they actually help, and a few tips for people interested in coaching for finding a business coach who's well-suited and legit.
Natalie Eckdahl is the founder of Biz Chix, a coaching service specializing in helping women entrepreneurs. Eckdahl says prospective clients often arrive with trepidation.
"I often have new clients who are apprehensive about investing in a coach," she tells me. "Some have spent thousands of dollars on a business coach, group program, or online course that yielded zero results. I feel for these clients and also I am left having to 'prove' that working with me will lead to results."
To do that, Eckdahl has taken a creative approach. She recently began broadcasting real coaching calls with real clients on her podcast, letting prospective clients to see (or rather, hear) her in action. Not only does this allow thousands of listeners to benefit secondhand (for free) from what’s discussed, it also gives them a chance to see what it's like to work with her—then decide for themselves whether it's the right fit.
"It gives potential clients a window into my style and the breadth and depth of my knowledge," she explained. "When a new client asks to have an introductory call with me, I actually refer them to listen to these on-air calls rather than offering a free call to see if we are a fit."
One of Echdahl's colleagues is Lisa Woodruff, who runs Organize 365, an organizing and productivity consultancy. In the past year, Woodruff has been through the ringer with business coaches. She's hired a total of four of them—yes, four. But it’s not because they were all bad, Woodruff explains—she had a strategy: each coach was meant to help her with a specific component of her professional life.
Woodruff initially hired a business coach for straightforward tech help, to onboard her onto a new email platform. Then she hired a "mind-set coach." After that, Woodruff invested in a coach to help her publish a book on Amazon and, finally, a coach to help grow her brick-and-mortar business.
"I need experts to teach me specific skills," Woodruff explains. "If they’ve done it before, I need them to tell me exactly what to do so I can do it, too." For her, this was actually the better approach than simply contracting with an all-purpose "business coach" to help her accomplish everything she'd set her sights on—and likely fall short.
When looking for each of these coaches, Woodruff's main criteria was finding someone who not only had already overcome the challenges she was facing but could prove they'd helped others do the same. That, she said, was the hardest part.
"I found a lot of people talked about being successful instead of actually doing what it takes to be successful," she recounts. "Then, when you find a coach who has done it, you need to make sure they can teach someone else how to do the same thing. Teaching someone how to do it a totally different ballgame."
Woodruff is right. Not everyone with experience—even highly targeted experience—is necessarily a capable instructor. And it's one thing for a business coach to advertise their past clients and another to show what they actually helped those clients accomplish, and how.
So how do you know if your coach is qualified? Dana Malstaff, of Boss Mom, agrees with Eckdahl and Woodruff that this can be a real problem. "With coaches popping up left and right these days, it's hard to tell who is legit." But Malstaff has both worked with coaches and coached herself, so she's picked up a few key pointers for sizing up a coach's credentials, teaching abilities, and fit. These are three questions she suggests asking:
1. Can they walk you through a guided journey between where you are and where you want to go? If someone is simply spouting out information to show you they know their stuff, that may be a red flag. You need a step-by-step roadmap. Probe a little further to see if they can actually provide structure to the program they're suggesting.
2. Are they asking a lot of questions about you? First and foremost, a good coach should be a good listener. Similar to a therapist, the best coaches are the ones who can see between your words and pull out solutions that you didn't even know to ask for. They help you see your challenges in ways you can't.
If a coach's answers are always the same for everyone all the time, stop and reconsider. Either they may not know exactly what you need, or they simply found one methodology that's worked in the past, and that's the thing they're now pushing on everyone.
3. Are your personalities a good match? For coaching to work, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to making uncomfortable changes. You need to be able to take constructive criticism, be honest, and respect their advice. If your coach seems closed off and impersonal—or just not your cup of tea—then it's up to you to talk more about your passions and the things you love. The more you share about yourself upfront, the better you'll be able to assess the match.
Fit is everything, after all. Just because a coach isn't well-suited for you doesn't mean they don't know what they're doing. But it's your job to find out—before they can do theirs.
Christina Nicholson is a former TV reporter and anchor who now owns and operates a full-service public relations firm, Media Maven. She also recently launched "Master Your PR," an online course that teaches small business owners and marketers how to handle public relations on their own.