Who’s it not for?

For private college counselors running your own shops, one of the keys to standing out and doing great work is deciding who you–and your expertise–isn’t for.

What kind of guidance or support can a potential customer request—and be perfectly willing to pay you for—that you’d politely decline and refer them to a competitor who’s a better fit?

I don’t mean a family who’s requesting a service that’s wildly out of your expertise, like asking you to tell them what kind of roofing to put on their house. I mean a family who wants a type of college advising that you have actively decided is not where you hang your professional hat.

Maybe a family has an athlete who’s hoping to be recruited, or a student who’s not that engaged in the college process and needs someone to light the fire, or parents who are primarily concerned about the cost of college and are hoping you can help secure financial aid and scholarships. It’s hard to imagine any counselor who could help all of those families equally well. And if you can’t do great work for a family, don’t they deserve to find someone who can? And don’t you deserve the opportunity to do your best work? Saying no gives you both that opportunity.

It’s temping when running any business to say yes to anyone who’s willing to pay you. You want to pay your bills. You want to earn a living. You want to grow your business. Why shouldn’t you say yes, especially in the early stages, if all it will mean is a little extra work and learning on your part?

But saying yes to everyone is a path to owning a business that’s just like all the others. Deciding who your work isn’t for is step one to creating a business people talk about.

Imagine the wedding photographer who says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t shoot outdoor weddings.”

Imagine the caterer who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t cater events for more than 15 people.”

Imagine the accountant who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t work on taxes for people who aren’t business owners.”

Now the photographer can focus on becoming so good at servicing the unique needs of her clients that she becomes known as the one you call when your wedding will be indoors.

The caterer can put his energies into becoming the one in town that people talk about because of the show he put on for their dinner party.

The accountant can become the one in town that small business owners talk about because she helped them make their businesses more financially sound.

Sure, you’ll still need to do great work to stand out. You’ll need to create experiences for your customers so remarkable that they can’t help but talk about you. But it’s a lot easier to do that for a smaller segment than it is to do it for everyone. And the first step towards identifying your smaller segment is to decide which members of the larger segment just shouldn’t hire you.

If you have trouble deciding, consider three things.

1. Who’s your ideal customer, the person who’s predisposed to be thrilled with what you do and how you do it?

2. Are there enough of those people to sustain your business?

3. And most importantly, what could you learn, do, and provide to that group that would make them feel like you’d created the perfect service for them, one that understood their desires, fears, and hopes for their college process?

Now, who doesn’t fit in that group?

To find the groups that will buy, appreciate, and talk about your best work, start by deciding who your service isn’t for.