Your Best Customers: Marketing as a Filter, Not Just a Magnet

Your Best Customers
Want this post in 5-seconds? Marketing isn’t just about getting “the word” out. It’s about reaching your best customers—the people you love working with and who drive your business forward. But how? There’s more to it than that…

Marketing has a problem: people don’t understand what it is.

That’s a broad statement, and it’s a little unfair. But a lot of people—so very many people—think of “marketing” in the wrong way. And for small businesses especially, that can be dangerous.

Too often, marketing gets reduced to getting more “leads.” Or even getting more “customers.” The focus is on more. Reaching more people on Twitter. Having a bigger email list. Getting more, more, more people through the door (whether or not they ever come back).

And it makes sense.

Small businesses are often caught in a kind of limbo. You need to bring in customers to have a business. But once you have the customers, you don’t have time to go out and get any more customers.

serving customers takes time

Time spent serving customers means no time to get more

So you spend your time serving customers until…they’re all served. You’ve gone from having lots of business to no business, and turn to marketing to get more business in the door fast.

These is true even for marketing agencies! A ton of marketing agencies are terrible at marketing themselves—because they need to spend most of their time marketing their clients.

The cycle repeats:

  • No customers. Much marketing
  • Much customer. No marketing.
  • Ahhh no customers! NEED MORE MARKETING!

What if the cycle were different?

  • Much customers. Little marketing.
  • Still much customers. Still little marketing.
  • Still much customers. Still little marketing.

The cycle can be changed. If you change how you think about marketing.
Instead of thinking about marketing as a way to “get the word out” or “build a brand” or “generate leads” or even “get customers,” marketing needs to be considered as a way to filter out the people you don’t want to work with.

Marketing needs to be a way for you to find your best customers.

When you do marketing, you have more tools at your disposable than any other marketer has had in history. As a result, you have more control than ever over the type of people you attract to your business.

If you think now about your customers and clients, I’d bet you can imagine some customers you really like, and some customers that are…less than pleasant to work with.

What if you could work only with your best customers? Or even mostly?

When you refocus on your ideal customers, a lot of things get a lot easier.

  • You know which marketing tactics to use. When you target a really specific audience, you can narrow down your marketing (and stop spending so much) on tactics that don’t reach those people.
  • Your can serve your customers better, because you know they’ll be back. A great customer is someone with the potential to become a long-term customer. That means you can provide better service—without worrying that your time is wasted.
  • Your customers become your best salespeople. When you reach the right people and have excellent service, your customers become advocates and evangelists. They tell their friends and actively help your business grow.
  • You can grow your business by making genuine connections. Working with “problem” customers is tiring. And less profitable. When you work with your best customers, your business grows and your life gets easier.

That probably sounds good, but how do you actually do it? It takes a new understanding of marketing (and some specific tactics) to find your best customers.

Marketing as a filter, not a magnet

Inbound. Lead “magnets.” Automated lead generation.

The buzz around terms and ideas like this has increased sharply in the last few years. You can’t take two steps in the marketing world without somebody saying “content is king.”

And to be clear, automated lead generation is an ideal situation. When you’re wondering how to generate more leads, or need to do lead nurturing, or are looking for lead generation strategies to grow your business—having leads come to you is pretty much the dream scenario.

But what gets missed a lot in these conversations is that you don’t just want “leads.” At least not in the generic sense.

You don’t even want “customers.” You’re looking for your best customers, and that means your lead generation needs to be focused on reaching those people—and deliberately not reaching others.

The real dream scenario is to automatically attract amazing customers who will spend their life savings, buy you a new sports car, and put your grandchildren’s grandchildren through college.

Or at least, ya know, buy stuff on a semi-consistent basis.

Doug Kessler, a content marketer and co-founder of Velocity Partners, made this point back in 2013, when he wrote about how great content marketing is a filter and not just a magnet.

Doug Kessler

“Great businesses invariably have a far higher proportion of great customers and a tiny proportion of terrible ones. 

Because of this, these businesses grow faster, attract better people, do better work and attract even more great clients. It’s a virtuous circle and it leads to faster growth, higher revenue and better profit margins.

All these good things are caused by great customers.Similarly, businesses that have an unhealthy proportion of terrible customers slowly become terrible in every other way. They attract dull employees. The work is mediocre. The growth is slow and the margins suck.”

Terrible customers take more time. More energy. They lower your team’s morale. They don’t come back for more. They don’t tell their friends about you. At the end of the day, they spend less, make you less money, and are more annoying in the process.

But there’s more to it than that.

How does focusing on your best customers
get you better results?

It’s one thing to say “focus on your best customers.”

As you’ve been reading so far, you’ve probably been nodding along. Most people agree with “work with your best customers,” because everyone likes working with their best customers and gets annoyed by terrible customers.

But it’s another thing to actually put “focus on your best customers” into practice.

  • It’s another thing when a potential customer comes to your door offering lots of money for a big project
  • It’s another thing when you have to choose to turn them away
  • It’s another thing when you have to actively repel customers

I’ve watched this happen at small companies. A company looking to increase their revenue says they only want to work with great customers and clients—but then a big project comes along and it’s too tempting to pass up.

Even when the customer is horrible.

These projects have red flags everywhere. Scope creep starts immediately and never stops. Deadlines fly by. The client is unresponsive. They never, ever go according to plan.

Even when the numbers seem big up front, the long term effects of serving bad customers can be devastating to a business.

Verne Harnish runs a consulting group that works specifically with fast-growing companies. In his excellent book Scaling Up, he argues that demotivating your employees is one of the worst mistakes you can make in your business.

And, sometimes, keeping morale high means firing bad clients.

Scaling Up
“Fixing people issues for your team can also mean “firing” a client.

Unreasonable clients who mistreat your employees and disrupt your business can become an important energy drain. Firing such clients can gain the manager huge respect internally.

The negative financial impact is usually counteracted by the immediate rise in the spirits and productivity of your team.”

All of that says something about the effects of bad customers. But why are great customers so much better?

How specifically does focusing on your best customers help you grow your business?

It’s cheaper to get customers (and keep them)

Selling to your best customers takes less explaining.

When what you sell is a great fit for the people you’re selling to, you don’t need to convince people to buy. Your cost per lead goes down. Your customer acquisition costs go down. Your marketing speaks directly to the needs of only your best customers—and their decision to buy become a total no-brainer.

What’s more, the value of an individual customer goes up.

Your best customer are the people who love what you offer, and those people are more likely to keep coming back again and again. They’re also more likely to spread your business through word of mouth (but we’ll talk about that later).

Because these are the customers you love working with, and because your best customers are easier to deal with in the first place, you’re likely going to provide a better customer experience

This opens up a whole new area of your marketing! And a much more profitable one.

Your existing customers are the audience most likely to buy from you. Customer segmentation that lets you target existing customers is a simple way to get more business—and keep a relationship going. Instead of constantly hunting down new leads, you can sell to existing customers.

What makes marketing expensive? Not focusing on good customers.

Dollar bills

Unfocused marketing means spending a lot more of these

If your marketing is focused just on getting people through the door, you attract a lot of people who will buy once and then disappear into the wind. It’s expensive to keep finding more one-off customers. You can’t keep buying customers over and over an expect to come out on top.

An article from MIT’s Sloan Management Review titled How to Identify the Best Customers for Your Business draws a distinction between “transaction buyers” and “relationship buyers.”

Transaction buyers are looking to make decisions relatively quickly. They aren’t all that interested in which businesses they buy from—they just need to buy something that fits their needs.

In other words, they’re interested in making a transaction.

Relationship buyers, on the other hand, are in it for the long haul. They want to work with companies that they trust to deliver results over the long term, and they’re more likely to stick with those companies for a long time.

So much of marketing is focused on optimizing the transaction. Coupons, flash sales, discounts, flashy forms, clickbait headlines, and even the results of many A/B tests (and optimization of individual ads).

Individual transaction tactics definitely have their place. But over-relying on the transaction is going to attract more transaction buyers.

Not enough marketing focuses on optimizing the relationship. Personalized follow-up. Long-term communication. Automation that delivers value over time. Messaging that appeals to your best customers, instead of just driving clicks.

Customers are assets. An existing base of customers is one of your most valuable business assets. When you think of long-term customers as assets, of course you should narrow your focus to the assets that are the most valuable!

Word of mouth, referral marketing, virality, and “buzz”

Focusing on your best customers opens up one new marketing channel, because you can sell more stuff to your existing customers.

But it also makes another channel more effective—referrals.

Especially for small businesses, referrals can be a huge source of business. For freelancers, consultants, agencies, and individual service providers—whether they’re personal trainers, therapists, or carpet cleaners—referrals can fill your entire pipeline.

Why does focusing on your best customers lead to more referrals?

People tell their friends about things they love. Not products they sort of like. Not products that they got that one time it was on sale.

Why does focusing on your best customers lead to more referrals?

  • Your business is a better match for their needs. Your best customers aren’t the people who need something that you “sort of” can do. They’re the people that you serve completely—what you do perfectly matches what they need, so they’re more satisfied.
  • You can provide a higher level of customer service. Because your best customers need exactly what you offer, you can answer even their most specific questions.
  • Your service is better because you like working with them. When you don’t dread talking to a customer, your responsiveness to customers increases. The level of service you provide goes up, because you can offer them more of your time.
  • You can ask for referrals directly. When you amaze customers with an incredible experience, they’re happy to spread the word.

All of those factors improve the experience of your customers—and because your best customers spread the word and spend more overall, you can afford to take the extra time to deliver incredible service.

How Heather saved 10 hours every week by
getting rid of “zombie leads”

Heather Read was a full-time family photographer with a problem. She had too many leads.

Early on in running her photography business, Heather made the excellent decision to focus on local SEO. People looking for family photographers could easily find her website through Google, and she had more leads than she knew what to do with.

And her leads weren’t becoming customers.

Heather was spending a ton of time following up with each lead, but a huge percentage of her leads weren’t really a good fit for her business. Too many of these “leads” were really just looking for the cheapest photographer they could find.

Heather needed a way to identify customers. People she really wanted to work with. People who were:

  • Ready to hire a photographer
  • Willing to pay her fees
  • Interested in her style

Qualified leads are interested and ready to buy

So she did. She focused her attention on being more selective—and instead of trying to reach out to everyone directly, she looked for ways to qualify leads.

We did a full case study of Heather’s automations, which you can read for inspiration.

Heather used a system of qualifying leads, automatically following up, scoring leads, and closing deals to remove the tire kickers who were never really going to become great customers.

In broad strokes, her system looks like this.

  • Use her pricing information as an opt-in incentive to collect information from visitors to her website
  • Automatically put new leads through a sequence of emails (eliminating all the time spent on manual follow-up)
  • Track the leads that engaged with the emails in her automated follow-up
  • Unsubscribe leads that stopped engaging with her emails
  • Invite her most qualified leads (identified with lead scoring) to book a consultation with her

By the time Heather actually needed to interact with customers directly, she knew that they were interested in what she had to offer. Her pricing hadn’t scared them away, they’d gotten a look at her style, and they were interested enough to book a consultation.

The zombie leads disappeared. Free time filled the space where they used to be. 10 hours of free time every week.

Save time by finding your best customers

That’s the power of focusing on your best customers. When you narrow the pool of people you talk to, you can spend less time on marketing and get better results.

Heather’s story gives you a taste of what it means to attract great leads. But you can also work to actively drive away customers who are going to cause you trouble.

How to repel bad customers

You can save time, save energy, save money, and save morale by totally avoiding customers you don’t want to work with.

In the right circumstances, explicitly rejecting certain customers can even earn you some respects from the customers you do want.

Here are a few ways you can filter out the customers you don’t want to work with.

Explicitly exclude some customers

Ramit Sethi of IWT and GrowthLab has an interesting policy for his online courses. Even though he has an email list with hundreds of thousands of people and a business with tens of thousands of customers, he turns away anyone who has credit card debt.

Here’s what he has to say on the subject, from a guest post analyzing his 5 million dollar week.

Ramit Sethi
“Over time, we’ve learned to be very selective about who we allow to join us. Notice we use the word “allow” — not to be arrogant, but because we spend millions of dollars developing and testing our material, we consider it a privilege to allow someone to join.

That means we don’t allow anyone with credit card debt to join our flagship programs, a decision that costs us more than $2 million dollars per year. We use the carrot-and-stick approach:

The carrot: If you’re in credit card debt, we don’t want your money until you’re financially comfortable. We believe you should be focused on paying your debt off, not joining a $2,000+ course. So we send them a free copy of my book chapter on paying off debt and tell them to email us when they’re debt-free. We’ll be here to welcome them in.

The stick: We also tell them that if they join with credit card debt, we’ll refund their money and ban them for life. We take this seriously and maintain a “DNS” — Do Not Sell — list.

We also make it intentionally difficult to join our courses. One of the first things you’ll notice when you visit GrowthLab is that you cannot buy anything from it. We strategically and intentionally only allow you to buy from our email list, so we can first build a relationship and show you how our material is different.

And even then, courses only open for a few select windows throughout the year, then close days later. They remain closed for months or even years.

We’re looking for decisive students who are ready to take action. (When students miss a deadline, we get predictable requests to let them in. We always say no.)”

There are some interesting things going on here.

Sethi restricts people with credit card debt from joining his courses for all the reasons he discusses—but also for another reason. People with credit card debt are likely to be less reliable customers.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that you having credit card debt makes you a bad person. Sethi is looking for high-end customers—the kind of people who are willing to drop $2,000 on an online course because they believe in it’s value.

That’s the most important point—he’s looking for people who don’t worry about price.

Someone with credit card debt, even if they’re willing to spend now, is going to be concerned about paying down that debt at some point. By largely side-stepping price-conscious consumers, Sethi creates an army of students that buy multiple courses and actually complete them.

As an added bonus, this restriction is worthy of some praise. It’s actually true that someone with credit card debt should likely not buy a $2,000 course. Sethi does the right thing, and wins some respect from his target audience as a result.

Use language and messaging with a clear target

Who are you talking to, and who are you not talking to?

When you put together your website, flyers, Facebook ads, direct mail, brochures, or any other marketing, you should be using the same language your audience uses.

And if you really nail it, you’ll filter out the people who aren’t in your target audience by default.

Need an example? Check out the positioning of “Bony to Beastly.”

Bony to Beastly brandingSource: Bony to Beastly

Is someone who wants to lose weight going to be interested in a program called “Bony to Beastly?” Everything about this program tells you exactly who the program is for.

Skinny guys who want to build muscle are going to see the program and be interested. Who won’t be?

  • Middle-aged guys who are trying to lose weight
  • Pregnant women who are preparing for labor
  • People who just want to move more and be healthy

Each of those target audiences is served by other people. Focusing intently on a specific target audience lets the creators of Bony to Beastly work with exactly the target audience they want.

For another example, check out the dating coach service “Introverted Alpha.”

Introverted Alpha brandingSource: Introverted Alpha

Who is this program for, and who isn’t it for? Clearly it’s for introverted men who want to get dates. A little more investigating shows that the main service is at a premium price point and focuses on helping clients get into long term relationships.

The messaging appeals to introverted men with a high willingness to pay. That’s the ideal customer, so the core marketing message is specifically crafted to appeal to that audience.

And not to anyone else.

Conclusion: For your best customers, filtration > magnetism

If the main goal of your marketing is to “spread the word” or “get leads,” your marketing is probably giving you a headache.

When the goal of marketing is to reach anyone and everyone, you have an impossibly long list of marketing tactics to choose from. Tactics like:

  • Direct mail
  • Flyers
  • Sponsorships
  • Social media
  • Facebook Ads
  • PPC ads
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Public relations
  • Content marketing
  • Guest posts
  • Email marketing
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Banner ads
  • Product listing ads
  • Native ads
  • Guerilla marketing
  • Brochures
  • Billboards
  • Business cards
  • Business directories and listings
  • Cold calling
  • Online communities
  • Contests
  • Video marketing (YouTube, Wistia, Vimeo)
  • Networking
  • Podcasts
  • Trade shows
  • Webinars

And so on.

When you change how you think about your marketing—when the goal becomes targeting your best customers—the list of tactics that make sense narrows.

You don’t need to spread “the word.” You need to reach a very specific group of people. So you choose the tactics that are best at reaching those people.

You work with more of your best customers.

A trial is worth a thousand words.

Get started today, no credit card required.