It’s a classic question, a starting point for service-providers and entrepreneurs of all kinds. It's the stuff of late night tossing and turning for those of us who dare to hang a shingle and strike out on our own... and, for many, it is a significant source of failure in the early years of the business journey. The question?
How do I add value?
Early in my consulting career I struggled to clearly state a single, one-size-fits all (cringe), value proposition for my business.
This is the stuff of elevator speeches and standard sales pitches across the globe.
I was introspective.
I was authentic.
...I was confusing the heck out of people!
Now that I am older and (I hope) wiser, I approach things a little bit differently. My value proposition is no longer something I wear like my favorite dress shoes, which look and feel the same no matter what room I am standing in. These days, there are dress shoes, flip flops, sneakers, no shoes at all, and an honest admission that there are many occasions where I just don’t have anything that’s appropriate!
Lest you find yourself at the business equivalent of a track meet sporting your prettiest (wobbliest) stilettos, you might want to consider taking these three steps.
1) Learn what self-as-instrument means.
This one is obvious, although not everyone can do it without developing an ego the size of Lake Superior.
Be authentic! Be yourself!
Understand and value what you bring to the table personally and professionally.
Get in touch with your emotions, strengths, and weaknesses…
...and learn to manage them!
I am guilty of starting my first business when I was working to reinvent myself. The uncertainty I felt about my own abilities and direction in life at that time really set me back. It wasn’t until I got to a place where my smile was real– not just putting on a “brave face,” that things started to pick up.
The truth is that when we engage with other people in professional settings, we are actively creating the client experience with every word we say, every gesture, every facial expression, and everything we DON’T say as well.The successful entrepreneur or consultant must be at ease with himself/herself and come from a place of service.
2) Differentiate— but BEFORE you try to explain it, figure it out quietly, in the privacy of your own office and test your understanding with a coach or trusted colleague.
What makes us different than our competitors?
How do we stand out?
These are important questions that we must ask as business professionals in often overcrowded industries.
My own experience suggests that business consulting today is, in many ways, the wild, wild west!
With thousands of people competing to help businesses of all sizes increase their bottom lines, the differentiation question is a VERY important one, especially if you have invested in extensive formal training and education– even more so if you are a seasoned professional with experience AND training. Do some market research. Make sure you understand your competition and the marketplace.
What business models are common?
Which ones work?
Who else is serving your potential clients today… and is there room in that market space for a new kid on the block?
Okay.We’re off to a good start! You have done enough navel gazing to be confident in who you are and how you show up.You understand what it is that you bring to the table and how it makes you stand out from the crowd.
Now for that “last tactical mile,” the one that is a deal-breaker when it comes to actually putting money in the bank (or buying your mac & cheese during the first few years)!
3) Be of Service!
All of this self-awareness, skill-building, and research will get you nowhere if you don’t take this next step. Figure out what people need.
Ask them what problems keep them up at night.
What problems do they face over and over, day in and day out?
What is causing enough pain that people will pay to address the issue?
Then ask yourself this one (inside voice & discretion advised).
Are YOU the right person to help, or is the best way to serve them to refer them to a colleague who specializes in that area?
I am reminded of a scene from the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the father uses window cleaner to cure all sorts of cuts, scrapes, and bruises.It is a running joke.Someone mentions a scrape and the man always tells them to “Put some Windex on it!”
Business consultants do this too.We see every problem in the world as something we can address with our own special sauce, and that’s just not how the world works!
It’s funny in the movies, but in business, it’s reckless.
For example, if I am working with a business that needs a good accounting audit, the responsible thing is for me to refer them to a CPA. If I try and sell a social or efficiency-based solution (what I am good at providing), I am not serving the client’s needs.
Maybe I could get the sale if I gave my best pitch in this situation.
I might even benefit them by improving communications in the organization, even tangentially improving how numbers are reported by working a different problem— but I would not be acting in with integrity.
A true professional wants the other person to succeed and makes that the focus of the conversation. This is the stuff that TRUST is made of.
A true professional listens, asks questions, and makes responsible recommendations because what is of value to one potential client, colleague, or new acquaintance may not be of value to another. The value proposition is contextual and highly dependent on timing.
That doesn’t mean you need to be wishy washy.
It doesn’t mean changing colors like a chameleon to match your surroundings.
It means helping others in the ways that best serve THEM– waiving off if we are not qualified to address the need, or if we can’t find a mutually beneficial schedule.
Tying these three topics together can save the budding entrepreneur a world of pain, and a penny or two...
These suggestions can be boiled down to awareness and effort tied to three simple perspectives. When you need to be mindful of all three steps in a meeting, discretely draw a little triangle on the corner of your paper where you will see it and remember to consider things from all three perspectives.
Self-awareness is pretty clearly the SELF part of the triangle.While differentiation starts out in the arena of
SELF (How am I different?), done well, it leads to market research and an understanding of the competitive environment or context–SITUATION. The last (and most important) of these three steps, serving others, tackles the remaining perspective, OTHERS.
So what about you?
Can you operate from all three perspectives at once?
If not, start with the first one and work your way down the list. Just don't stop before your are finished or the results can be disappointing!
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