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Consider This Before Hiring a Business Coach

The right coach can help your business grow in unexpected ways, but finding a good match can take some legwork.
July 01, 2015

If you've never used a business coach, the idea of hiring one can seem so right—and so wrong. While you might concede that everyone could benefit from sound business advice, at the same time, you may be thinking, "What am I in? Little League? I'm a grown adult. I don't need a coach."

And that's where you'd be wrong. Business coaching is a $12 billion industry in the U.S., according to market research company IBISWorld, with business owners nationwide embracing the use of coaches on some level. People use business coaches for a variety of reasons, including to learn how to market themselves better, to improve their business skills or to simply have a neutral voice as a sounding board when making big decisions.

If you're intrigued by the idea of using a business coach to improve your leadership skills or take your business to the next level, what should you expect? Can you get your money back if they end up offering lousy advice? Following are some nuts-and-bolts answers to the five most important questions you need to ask before you sign up.

1. How Much Is This Going to Cost Me?

As you might guess, the cost of a business coach ranges depending on a number of factors, including their level of expertise, their specialties and their location. "I interviewed five to six coaches before hiring [my business coach]," says Trevor Lohrbeer, co-founder and CEO of Lab Escape, a heat map data discovery software vendor in Asheville, North Carolina. Lohrbeer says the coaches he spoke with charged anywhere from $50 an hour to $5,000 a month. 

"The coach I worked with used package pricing," says Michael Murphy, owner of Web design and development company Erion Media Inc. in Rochester, New York. "The initial four-hour strategy session was about $1,500. Then he had tiered monthly coaching packages. I chose the least expensive one with a three-month commitment for another $1,500 per month."

But that, Murphy later concluded, was too expensive for him. "I needed at least one project every month just to cover [the cost of the] coaching, then at least two additional projects to cover other business expenses and my salary. In hindsight, this was really unrealistic, since Web development projects can be complex, time consuming and long term. Getting and managing three to more projects each month on my own is next to impossible."

You can find affordable coaching, says Kurt Elster, who owns Ethercycle, a digital development agency in Chicago. "There are ways to get coaching without breaking the bank," says Elster, who regularly works with a coach. "Many coaches have information products ranging from free, like blogs, to books and video courses. In the case of my coach, you can even buy face time [with them] by the minute on"

Elster's coach, however, doesn't come cheap. Elster's been paying $2,000 a month for about four hours of coaching and says it's been worth it.

But finding a bargain isn't hard if you hunt for it. Kevin Caron, a sculptor in Phoenix, pays his business coach, who's a retired nonprofit executive, just $150 a month for a two-hour in-person meeting or phone consultation.

"I'm probably the last kind of business owner in the world anyone would expect to have a business coach," Caron admits. "But I wouldn't be where I am today without her." Caron's been working with her since 2005.

Caron's business manager, Mary Westheimer, says of the $150 Caron pays for a two-hour meeting, "I suspect this is very inexpensive, but she's retired and money isn't a huge motivator for her."

2. How Much Time Will I Have to Spend With the Coach?

While each situation and every coach is different, you should be ready to invest as much time as it takes to get the results you're seeking. Whether you have a one-hour, weekly in-person session or your coach is on call throughout the month, you must set aside time to meet, then do any follow-up work required. Otherwise, you'll just be wasting your money.

"Warning—it's more time than you probably think," says Michael Shepherd, CEO of The Shepherd Group, a PR and content marketing firm in Newport Beach, California, who's worked with two different business coaches. "In the early stages of the relationship, you'll probably be spending the equivalent of at least one day a week pulling together documents, creating lists and action plans, and reaching out to experts associated with your action items."

3. How Can I Find a Business Coach Who's Right for Me?

Knowing how to find a business coach can be the easy part; finding one who's a good fit for you may take some time. Your first step might be to sort through the directories available at the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches, where you can search for business coaches by location and the types of skill sets you're looking to improve. Another option is to check out SCORE, a nonprofit organization run by the U.S. Small Business Administration with retired executives as mentors. SCORE is often utilized by people who are starting out in business, but it's free, and if you need advice and can't pay for it, this might be a good place to start.

You could also ask your colleagues and friends on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter for their personal recommendations for a business coach. While you won't know if the person is a good match for you until you talk to them, you'll at least get feedback on what your associate liked or didn't like about their coach. You might also try visiting business networking sites or industry websites where you're likely to meet people in your field. Elster found his business coach after posting comments on The Hacker News, a website he often frequents.

4. What Kind of Advice Will I Get?

Talk to a satisfied client, and you'll likely get rave reviews. "I find my coach to be an invaluable resource who provides me with straightforward advice on how to grow and sustain my business," says Sean Horrigan, owner of PR Guy, a Boston-based PR firm. "He helps me stay focused and map out strategies to help me reach my short- and long-term business goals. I truly value his input and expertise.

"The trick," Horrigan adds, "is to find the right coach who's not only a cheerleader but a trusted business advisor."

A good business coach can help you expand your horizons and grow your business in ways you may not be able to do on your own. "As a business owner, you can fall into the trap of an echo chamber, only focusing on the things you know and the way you know to do them, " says Jessica Flynn, owner of PR firm Red Sky Public Relations in Boise, Idaho. "A business coach can help you see beyond your assumptions and bring to light learning and approaches from other industries and leaders and help showcase how you can leverage your strengths in the most efficient and productive way."

"[My coach] has helped me with productivity tricks, insight on business problems and accountability," Lohrbeer says. "The last has been critical, especially with areas where I need to push outside my comfort zone. As the owner of the business, I don't have a boss to hold my feet to the fire. So when a task needs to be done but I don't want to do it, I can often rationalize why I can do it later or avoid it altogether."

But not all business owners are happy with their coaching experience. Murphy, who paid $1,500 for his initial four-hour session and prepaid an additional $1,500 for the first month of coaching, quickly soured on the experience.

In Murphy's case, the coach he hired simply wasn't a good match. "He spoke at a workshop given by a colleague of mine and came very highly recommended from them," Murphy says. "I'll admit he wooed me with some back of the napkin calculations based on numbers I gave him for my business."

But after Murphy hired him, he soon realized they weren't a good fit. "In hindsight, my coach seems more comfortable working with larger companies that grow revenue through volume and add personnel to handle that volume," says Murphy, who—at least for the foreseeable future—wants to work solo and find fewer clients whom he can work with on an ongoing, consultative basis.

"That was pretty much the opposite of the coach's plan," Murphy adds, who was disappointed that the coach he hired didn't seem to understand his business or his goals, and that he spent $3,000 before he was able to cut the coach loose.

5. Can I Get My Money Back if the Advice Is Bad?

Probably not. Advice, even it's coming from someone with business experience and knowledge, is so subjective and ephemeral that your opinion of the "bad" advice you got from your coach is just that—your opinion. Unlike when you're compelled to return a faulty printer or a rancid burrito, it's hard to fault a coach for not giving you back your money for the time they spent consulting with you.

Still, you may find that the business coach you've hired will compromise if things don't work out. Murphy, who didn't use his coach beyond the initial four-hour session, lost the $1,500 he prepaid for the first month of a three-month session, but despite signing a contract, the coach released him from it and he was able to get out of paying for the last two months of the contract without any apparent hard feelings.

Despite his own experience, Murphy isn't anti-coaching—he's quick to say he believes business coaches can be a big help, and he knows a local graphic designer who says she's had phenomenal success with her coach. "I'd consider [using] a coach again," Murphy says, "but I won't be wowed by revenue predictions this time around. I'd also be looking for a much better fit as far as the types of companies they've worked with before and whether those companies' industry and culture are similar to my own."

Read more articles on leadership.

This article was originally published on August 12, 2014.

Photo: iStockphoto