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Target Your Customers: A Lesson in Small Business Humility

One bit of advice for anyone in business: target your customers. When I first began the practice of law 30 years ago, I bought a small building in the small town of Hadley in rural Lapeer County, Michigan. I proceeded to put out a sign that read Sean O’Bryan, Attorney at Law.

Things got busy fast. I started seeing clients almost immediately. I felt a bit like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, build it and they will come. Soon, I was busy and adding staff. 

Target Your Customers
Sean O’Bryan as a young attorney at his first office in Hadley, Michigan.

The Problem When You Don’t Target Your Customers

The problem was that my first 10 clients were exactly the wrong clients. You see, among that group were those wanting a divorce, a bankruptcy, or a lawyer to handle a criminal matter. I was young and hungry, so I accepted just about anyone who walked in the door. That was a huge mistake.  

While I had more clients than I could ever want, the truth was that I was miserable. While I was making money, I spent all of my time working on all of the kinds of legal matters that I personally hated. I was ready to quit.

The truth was that I was miserable. While I was making money, I spent all of my time working on all of the kinds of legal matters that I personally hated. I was ready to quit.

One Saturday, my father, a retired General Motors executive, and my mentor, sat me down because he saw me struggling. He asked me to take out every single file that was active in that small office at the time. I had perhaps 100.  

He took the first file, read the name and type of legal matter, and then asked one question: Do you like working on this file? I hemmed and hawed and tried to answer in a non-committal way. My dad would have none of it. He repeated again: Do you like working on this file? I quietly said no. He placed the file into a stack.

Soon, the pile grew. Then, he reached a file, perhaps 15 files in, and I finally said yes. It was an estate planning file. He started a new stack, and we continued this exercise until there were no files left. The yes pile, I have to admit, was pretty darn small. All totaled, there were less than 12 files out of 100. Mixed in that group were some wills, some real estate transactions, and some small business matters.  

In the no pile was everything else you could imagine that people go to lawyer for.  

My father told me that I had a legal obligation to finish the work for those in the no file or work with the client to find other suitable legal counsel, but that I should NEVER take a new client unless I liked the type of work and the actual client.

I was shocked and told him I would starve. I would have to lay-off staff, and our small town didn’t allow a lawyer the luxury of picking and choosing what type of work he handled. He looked me in the eye and said exactly the opposite. He said that I could not afford to allow the people who walked through my door to dictate the services I would perform.  

He said that I had failed the first test in owning your own business. You have to target your customers and do the very best you can for them. He said that it is better to best estate planning attorney in a small town that was happy and had clients that were satisfied and even impressed with your services than to be a mediocre general practice lawyer who would take any case, hated what he did, and didn’t do a very good job.

As a small business owner, you need to decide what kind of customers you want.

Target Your Customers Based on the Work You Want to Do

So from that day forward, I only took new clients that passed that test. More importantly, I studied and learned to become an expert in estate planning. Next, I targeted the types of clients that I wanted and marketed to them.  It wasn’t always easy. I had several lean years as I refocused. I had other colleagues who told me I would never survive, limiting my practice to such a seemingly small niche.

But over time, I built a successful and profitable estate planning law firm. 30 years later, I have handled many thousand estates from all over Michigan, with some clients driving 200 miles or more to see me.  

I have had clients who have owned prominent businesses and large multi-generation farms. I have created estate plans for doctors, mayors, ministers, accountants, professional athletes, lottery winners, other attorneys, and even a couple of retired judges. But most of my clients are my neighbors who live in small towns in our area and come from wonderful families. I love what I do and have blessed to have so many who have become friends. 

I can tell you that I wouldn’t be an attorney today if my father hadn’t stopped at my office that Saturday so many years ago. The lesson was a simple one, not in law – but in business and in life: to be successful and happy in any business, and to do right by your customers, you need to decide what you do best and only take and focus on those customers.  Learning to say no was the hardest part.  

It doesn’t matter if you sell concrete or dog grooming services, fix cars, or fix hearts; you will be successful if you are passionate and focused about what you do and target your customers based on what you are the best at doing.  

We can help you market your business. Reach out to us anytime you would like to talk.

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