Series: Ideation from your clients

Philip Morgan

(Readin' time: 6m 30s)

Alrighty, let’s start talking about ideation.

It’s worth talking about the elephant in the room: why ideation? Don’t your clients bring the ideas, and you bring the muscle and smarts to execute them?

Well, see, this is my whole thesis about marketing for professional services: It’s the process of connecting and building trust with prospective clients. Or alternately, it’s brand-building through thought leadership. But either way, good marketing is built on insight into your clients or those you want to serve.

If you have real insight into your clients, then you know what their needs and problems are well before the relationship begins. Yes, some of them will have bizarre or unexpected needs or problems, but for the most part, your very first opportunity to demonstrate real expertise to a client is to demonstrate that you understand their needs/problems and are tightly focused on solving those needs/problems.

That’s why you don’t wait for them to “go first” and express their need/problem to you in an initial discovery call. Instead, you “go first” and demonstrate your insight into their world on your website and in your marketing content. Yes, you clarify and discover more on the initial call, but you don’t wait for that call to start to learn about their problems. You do that well before, in the ideation and validation process I’m describing in this series.

So as we dive into the topic of ideation, remember that we’re talking about ideation in the context of discovering or identifying the needs/problems your clients prioritize solving.

Again, if your response to that notion of “going first” is one of the below, you’re not thinking big enough about your own ability to move the needle for clients, or you’re not really interested in entrepreneurial ways of creating outsized value for them (which is fine, by the way. This entrepreneurial thing is not for everybody.):

  • “But what my clients really need is my talent in software development. Focusing on their problems just complicates things.”
  • “Figuring out the business problems is somebody else’s job.”
  • “My clients understand better than I do how to solve their problems.”

If you find yourself saying something like the above in response to the idea of going first (“going first” is my shorthand for trying to predict your clients needs/problems rather than waiting for them to figure out how to solve those needs/problems and hiring you as “muscle” to solve them), then either the risk of the ideation process is offputting to you, or the whole idea of moving into the role of proactive solution provider consultant might not appeal to you. Again, that’s fine, but the reason this ideation process is important is because it frees you from the limitations that come with not understanding or not caring about the deeper, more expensive problems your clients struggle with.

You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the reward of phat consulting fees without the risk of trying to understand and articulate the problems/needs you see your clients struggle with.

OK, I’ve beat around the bush enough. Onto the ideation process!

Three Methods

It’s useful to structure the ideation process around three possible approaches. If you don’t have some kind of constraints, then we’re back in wacky Altucher land, flailing about trying to come up with lists of ideas. (To be clear, I admire a fair bit of James Altucher’s life and business, I just think there are ways to improve on some of his ideas.)

A good design process guides us much more efficiently from problem to solution, and in this case the ideation approach is a design process with three pathways from uncertainty to relative certainty.

By way of preview, you can 1) use your current and past client work as a corpus of research from which to identify patterns that suggest problems/needs 2) look for the same kind of patterns but in a market vertical that’s new to you and 3) look for a problem that is more horizontal in nature.

This email is getting long, but I’ll dive into the first of those three pathways, then stop for today, and resume tomorrow.

Ideation based on current+past client work

I wonder how many of you think of your current and past client work as research? I certainly do.

I mean, sure, it can be pretty ineffective research if you overlook the opportunity it presents. But client work almost always poses an opportunity to learn more about how your clients think and operate. And that, my friend, is a form of research.

Aside: you know how they say your strengths, when over-extended, become your weaknesses? I sometimes think the inverse can be true. A weakness can be used to create strength. As a card-carrying introvert, I habitually deflect questions about me and quickly try to flip into asking questions about them, whoever them happens to be. This has given me a lot of practice in learning about others. Some of it is a defense mechanism, or an over-enforced personal boundary, and some of it is genuine curiosity about others. Actually, most of it is genuine curiosity about others. Bottom line: I’m always asking nosy question of others, and while I definitely understand being timid about that at first, I think it’s a skill we all should get better at, because it lets us leverage ordinary situations into learning situations. Done in a sloppy or ad-hoc form, curiosity is just curiosity. But when you do it in a more consistent, methodical, or focused form, curiosity can become research. Not stringent academic or scientific research, but very useful nevertheless.

So in this first ideation pathway, think about the corpus of experience all your current and past client work represents. What patterns do you see? The following question prompts may help you spot these patterns:

  1. What business outcome was I hired to help create? Try to use “cave man language” as you express this. In other words, don’t get too flowery or nuanced. Most business outcomes really are at about the cave man level of sophistication. “Me want bigger market share, grunt grunt. Me want greater profitability, drool drool. Me want promotion and bigger house.” I kid, but only a little bit. Business isn’t rocket science after all. :)
  2. What were the specific obstacles to achieving those business outcomes? The desired outcome is usually quite simple, but your clients need outside help because achieving those outcomes requires navigating obstacles. Some of them of course are technical obstacles, but some are non-technical. List ‘em all, because any of those obstacles can potentially become a significant pillar of your message to prospective clients.
  3. Why hasn’t this problem already been solved? As you consider this question, try to do so from a truly empathetic position. In other words, just assume that the reason your client hasn’t solved this problem is not because they’re dumb, lazy, or running a poorly managed business. You don’t want to bake a negative view of your clients into your marketing message.

Alright, you’ve asked yourself these questions. Maybe you now have a pretty juicy list of problems that you’ve seen while embedded inside clients. Great!

Or... maybe you don’t. It’s possible that 1) you’ve seen a bunch of problems, but none are repeated and therefore none represent a pattern 2) you were so heads down while in client engagements or so uncurious about their world that you just never noticed any problems outside the immediate scope of your work, and your work might have been a very narrow part of some larger project. So you might have a list of problems that aren’t repeated and therefore aren’t patterns, or you might not have much of a list at all.

But! If you have previous clients, you still have a group of research subjects. And so I suggest you make use of that pool of research subjects. Ask them the questions above. Here’s how you preface those questions:

“Hey, $CLIENT, I was thinking about the work I did for you [remind them of when and what you did for them]. I realize during that project I was pretty heads down on delivering, and I neglected to ask some pretty basic questions. I’ve been working on improving my business by better understanding my clients and so I’m really curious now... [ask all the questions you want. 70% chance they’ll be flattered you asked and they’ll try to help].”

Even with doing this, you run the risk of building a wonderful, beautiful list of problems with absolutely no patterns at all in it. This is what happens when you’ve been operating as a generalist your whole career. You don’t stack up similar experience, and so you don’t get to see these patterns. If that’s you, fix that problem first, then come back to this in a year or three.

Or! Stay tuned for the next email in this series, where I’ll dive into the second ideation pathway: ideation outside your existing corpus of experience. This is naturally more risky and more entrepreneurial, but it’s one remedy for the “no patterns in my previous experience” problem.

If you'd like help with any of this ideation or validation stuff, I'd be happy to help: /services/