Can you remember the last time someone genuinely asked, “what can I do for you?” If you’re a business owner or spend lots of time on LinkedIn, you might come across this on occasion, but after ignoring solution sales techniques or promotional interests I am willing to bet a large sum that this question is one of the least heard in your day-to-day.
Why is this?
The hypothesis I propose might not be what readers want to see, but it comes down to people’s inherent selfish bias. This bias has been well documented, evidenced by axioms such as Dale Carnegie’s classic text How To Win Friends And Influence People:
“Remember that a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language”.
In almost any business context, saying a person’s name is a proven, surefire way to cut through noise in the attempt to encourage a listener to be more attentive. However, many people stop short thereafter. This can come across as self-serving and ignores another great insight from Carnegie: “The world is so full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking. So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage. He has little competition.”
These words are as true today as they were when first published in 1936.
I observe this in the world of entrepreneurship on a daily basis. It’s ingrained in sales pitches, landing pages, collateral incentive offers and hell, even throughout companies’ websites, even as they claim to be customer centric, focused on client’s needs and desires. This seemingly obvious concept is overlooked so often it’s easy to come across articles with titles such as “Why Customer Centricity Is Crucial To Your Organization” in reputable sources such as The Economist.
Crucial? When did customer needs and their prioritization become less important than, well, anything? I did not realize this was uncommon enough to warrant one of the most prestigious publications in the world convincing readers of its worth (mind you this isn’t a random article in Business Insider, this is a source every US president since JFK reads, according to an employee at The Economist).
According to the Internet entrepreneur millionaire and author MJ DeMarco: “You’d think that such a simple idea – needs and wants – was Captain Obvious. Entrepreneurship 101, right? Not exactly – more like advanced business strategy. For instance, it’s common for youngsters to declare such dreams as, “I want to be a billionaire when I grow up!” Or, I’m going to be rich!” What don’t you hear? “I want to provide massive value when I grow up! I want to produce for society!” And yet these are the things that lead to wealth. Wanting to be “rich” but disrespecting value is like trying to solve the quadratic equation without a, b, or c.”
“Even worse, I never heard about value, needs or wants in any of my college business courses…instead we discussed marketing tactics like AIDA, the 4Ps and other textbook strategies designed to move merchandise. Product viability or needfulness was never discussed, let alone on the curriculum!”
These observations stem from a subconscious-driven emphasis on the wrong aspects of business; at the end of the day, it should always be about adding relative value in the marketplace in a manner that’s competitively advantageous and timely. It is not all about chasing the next dollar, trendy marketing technique or net margin improvement.
If you search the word “value”, according to Merriam-Webster, one of the first definitions you’ll find is “relative worth, utility, or importance”.
Why relative? The simplest way to grasp this lesson is borrowed from the world of finance. According to James Chen at Investopedia, “relative value is a method of determining asset’s worth that takes into account the value of similar assets. This is in contrast with absolute value, which looks only to an asset’s intrinsic value and does not compare it to other assets.”
In other words, simply generating value isn’t enough. If it were, customer needs and market dynamics wouldn’t play a role in amassing fortunes. What you create and put forth into the world needs to demonstrate clear value relative to what is already available.
This emphasis is one step that is all too often overlooked when individuals plot their entrepreneurial roadmap.
A complimentary way to help business owners reorient their thinking in this manner is to re-conceptualize “money” and to begin referring to it as a “value-voucher – a store of perceived value produced, communicated, and delivered to the world”, to quote DeMarco.
If you begin evaluating business decisions and competitor assessment through this lens, the questions you ask will shift from a self-centered gravitational pull to one that helps you stand out among the crowd.
To further this concept, I’ll borrow from MJ DeMarco’s latest book, Unscripted: “To honorably attract value-vouchers, money bridges must be constructed with these four building blocks:
1) Value (product/service creation)
2) Perceived value communicated to another party (marketing and messaging)
3) A mutual agreement, an equilibrium with that party (closing)
4) Actual value delivered (execution)”
Two of the reasons this is such a beneficial perspective is due its roots in an honorable exchange while encompassing operational excellence. Without the executional follow through, embracing this shift will have a short-lived impact.
One compelling data point to consider for this argument is even among the population who study the concept of relative value, its applicability can be easily forgotten:
This forum requires new member applications, with one of the primary questions being “Why are you joining?” DeMarco ran a query across applicant answers to gauge the number of registrants who referenced the words “value”, “solving problems” and “helping others”. Can you guess the result?
Only 14 of every thousand. Interestingly, this equates to roughly one percent. The other 986 registrants answered with selfish motives, including acquiring capital, becoming wealthy, driving luxury cars, “freedom, travel, and other classic dreampreneuer shit”.
The more I’ve explored this concept in my businesses, the more I’ve found it to be true. To help illustrate this in a manner that might be beneficial to readers:
Here’s an overview of a successful relative value experiment that’s still paying off today
Over three years ago, I wanted to rekindle an old business partnership. We had lost touch with one another after a startup I helped build went through an unsuccessful acquisition process, followed by a failed acqui-hire. We had hired his agency to manage specialized marketing and segmentation optimization, but as the ship went down vendor spending came to a screeching halt and a former business partner responsible for these changes chose to handle this wind down poorly. The whole experience left a bad taste in your mouth and to be blunt, I still harbored guilt.
Since then, I went on to achieve unprecedented milestones with a natural products and skincare company I co-own and multiple website launches and/or sales. Yet, intuition encouraged me to overcome my apprehension and “make things right”, positively impacting his business while leveraging some of his team’s services to operationalize my existing entrepreneurial investments further. In essence, I suspected we would mutually benefit from my proactive outreach.
The first inclination was to reach out with a list of questions or send a random email to check in. I also was (myopically) interested to see if his team could fill in various gaps I had struggle hiring talent for.
Then, it occurred to me it would be more compelling, and arguably more meaningful for his company, to approach him with a compelling offer instead.
Around this time, a former colleague had asked me to advise how to improve digital marketing efforts for his employer who had been struggling with digital transformation initiatives for several years. Although I stay in touch with many agency owners, I knew early on this would be a perfect match. Thus, I invested time upfront to uncover this business’ specific gaps, “early win” opportunities and long-term perspectives to ensure the dots would all connect and that my introduction would be well worth the time.
When I finally re-engaged the business owner with this rare B2B lead, essentially offered on a silver platter, he greeted me with such a positive welcome my concerns evaporated quickly. He loved the idea of supporting this company and our new partnership was formed.
Fast forward to 2020, his 14 year-old business has achieved record levels of success. Their revenues has grown by over 200%, their staff has grown to unprecedented levels, my business acumen has expanded and we even decided to launch a new multichannel brand together.
At the risk of sounding trite, this turned into a win/win/win situation – one that continues to provide value relative to his companies’ status prior to my counsel, simultaneously benefiting my business ventures while serving as the genesis of a brand whose upper limits could be life-changing.
Perhaps this reframed approach is worth considering for your business. I’d love to discuss more and learn how this type of experiment has impacted you.