Having visited the CIPD conference in London a few months ago, and many events and conferences since, something has been bothering me. At the CIPD, I was impressed by the variety of companies exhibiting (including my own Henley Business School). And it confirmed something interesting about the creation of a value proposition – a value proposition that makes a particular company #standout.
It was pretty obvious that the bigger the company, the less #distinctive the proposition. The smaller the company, the more #distinctive they appeared. And by #distinctive, I’m talking about the visuals, the artwork, the brochures, the words and even the people. So why would this be so? Why would bigger companies fail to differentiate themselves? OK, I admit there are lots of reasons, and I am going to focus on just one.
In many situations, big companies have the edge. It’s clear that when:
- service is about handling volume, or
- complex relationships require many interactions between people, or
- when there is a multi-site environment
many hands indeed make light work. You need many people involved, to deliver the process or service to your chosen markets. Effectively. Efficiently. Economically.
But when it comes to articulating value, many hands make heavy work. Smaller companies have fewer of their own people to convince, and usually someone senior that “birthed the baby” and has a strong view on how their business should be positioned. Bigger companies have structures, systems, stakeholders and sensibilities. These need to be respected. And that takes time, and means lots of people to involve in developing your value proposition.
Getting lots of people involved in defining the value your company offers (and creating your value proposition) makes it tough to produce something distinctive. Different people have different perceptions as to what makes your company valuable to its customers (and they want their view heard). Others lack the bravery to use the emotive language that describes your true points of difference, afraid that shareholders or the general public will react badly to that (think of the recent UK elections, if you want evidence of how fear can mute the debate and make the main parties seem spookily similar, at national and local level). And that’s before you wonder whether enough decision-makers have the superior language capability needed, to articulate company value in a #distinctive way that everyone understands. That’s a tough ask…
So if you involve lots of people in defining your value, it’ll be heavy and hard work. And the result is that you’ll probably take the safe route. Customers will be eating vanilla ice-cream. Now there are some wonderful varieties of vanilla ice-cream. The challenge is how you get people to taste yours, when all vanilla sounds and looks the same.
But you have to involve your people, right? You need to be seen to do that – to ask for opinions, and generate ideas. And you should be doing that – you want the people involved that see value like a child they nurture. I’m in complete agreement, but its all about when. When should you ask your people for their input? My recommendation is simple. Involve as many people you like in focus groups or meetings to debate your value. Do that early in the process. And listen for the language your people use. Make sure you note and record their precise words and expressions, as they explain how they deliver value to customers (or tell you what they want to do differently). Feel their emotion. Make sure you use lots of that language in your value proposition (but don’t make it wordy). And re-tell their stories. Share their anecdotes.
But never ask a committee to develop the value proposition itself. Otherwise you’ll end up with something pretty neutral. A compromise. A consensus. And collateral (like the exhibition stand) that looks “me too” and “samey”. Instead choose a deliberately diverse group of people and bring them together. People that “get” what you’re trying to do. And lock yourselves in a room. Hire a facilitator and illustrator. And don’t come out until you’re finished. You’ll be amazed by the great results.
That becomes your value proposition. The ice-cream flavour will be at least neapolitan. Or you may have created a whole new flavour. And check out the Dorset Ice Cream @dorseticecream shop in Weymouth. 17 flavours of ice cream, and 7 sorbets. But they #standout because the flavours are #distinctive. That’s what draws in the customer. And my favourite’s the Pimm’s flavour sorbet. You really have to try it…
You’ve caught me taking a break. Tough day, and time to reflect on some interesting things that happened in the wonderful world of corporate!
And I started thinking about one of my supplier relationships. They are not a major supplier. They don’t impact my work every day. But they are important, and supply a valuable service.
But they are not the best to deal with. They are neither good at making me feel informed, nor at updating me on their progress. They check-in too infrequently. They like to be kept alone; to get on with what they are doing. They struggle to follow some clear instructions, and question too much (even too much for my liking – and I grew up being challenged and loving the energy that creates). But bizarrely, I keep using them. Why?
It’s simple really. The MERIT Method℠ uses the following five factors to define and measure value:
- Memory (how people recall or remember you, and the influence of their perceptions)
- Emotion (why they connect with you, and the state and reactions you create)
- Results (what you do or could deliver, and the various approaches and methods you use)
- Innovation (where you create more value, and solve or overcome important and specific problems)
- Time (when people acknowledge value, and the ways you manage those phases and stages)
This supplier is good at Memory. When I think of them, I remember that we’ve had a longstanding relationship. They are well respected, and know our business. But something else is more important. They produce Results. They deliver what’s needed and, even when I am beginning to doubt them, pop up with another success story. The problem is that they are lousy at managing Emotion – in this case meaning how the buyer (me!) feels about the day-to-day relationship. So they may help me reach of the summit of the mountain, and plant the flag, but I won’t enjoy the trip.
So, what I am concluding? It’s rare (in my world anyway) to keep using anything or anyone when “doing business” is a challenge. Where that Emotion isn’t right. But people can get away with most things if they produce Results. Maybe they’ll be fired as soon as they stop producing those Results, but they’re safe for now.
But there is one important thing I need to stress, before I get back to work. Key to Memory is trust. This is a supplier I trust. Trust to do a professional job. And trust is at the centre of everything. Whilst it’s there, I’m happy to keep them. And happy to wait patiently, util they recognise the issues and take the chance to improve. What I personally feel on a day to day basis is irrelevant. It’s all about Results.
Earlier in the week I met with John Peters @Johnpeters1531. John is famous for being a prisoner in the Gulf War. Remember him? He was the guy whose battered and bruised face appeared in photos across the quality and popular press. It turns out he was kept in captivity for seven weeks, and became a symbol of a war that divided opinion across the UK.
Yet he doesn’t rush to tell the story (despite having met royalty, chatted to Princess Diana, followed Nelson Mandela on stage, and being a major celebrity). Instead he’s a humble human being, who talks about “being bombed etc” as if that was just part of his job. He’s gone way past the bravado I might have expected from a military hero. And I loved him for it. It demonstrated a warm and likeable style that’s important for anyone speaking at The Henley Partnership @Henley_HP.
And this told me something new about value. His humility impressed me, intrigued me and interested me. It made me look for his real value; what he offers in terms of life and work experience to the business professionals we bring into our events. It made me believe that he’ll make sense, and be valuable, to the people listening. In the Gulf it was about survival, which taught John lots about leadership. And he’s turned his experiences into a relaxed yet robust framework to help leaders thrive in an environment of uncertainty. That’s not just valuable. It’s critical to the success of anyone in a leadership role.
So back to that humility. When it comes to value, showing humility “shines and amplifies” but arrogance “dulls and deadens”. I’ve seen arrogance too much lately – from junior players in cricket to senior figures in business. It makes me focus too much on the person’s style, and not enough on their substance. And if I don’t like the style, maybe I’ll ignore the substance.
So here’s my advice. Be brilliant. Be confident. Be assured. But show that humility. Even when you’re so talented that it’s hard to be humble. Your value will be obvious to everyone, and that will really make you #standout.
P.S. Meritology’s The MERIT Method℠ includes a clear focus on how value is affected by the emotional reaction of the person receiving. This blog is just one example. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more.