A decade ago, Simon Sinek popularized the idea of marketing your products based on a powerful story. And that story starts with WHY.
Why your company does what it does.
Why you created this product in the first place.
Why your product will make the customer’s life so much better.
That last one sounds a lot like expounding on your product’s benefits, right? But traditionally, “benefits” stop soon after the purchase, quite short term. Instead, we’re talking about a much deeper transformation for customers, something they may even struggle to articulate.
And that’s only the last step in telling your story to customers.
This whole exercise is about being authentic and transparent. Not just to gain the customer’s trust, but because you won’t be happy with yourself unless you can be honest and consistent.
I’ve noticed that there are several kinds of purchases I tend to make:
I buy many commodities mostly based on price, because I view most suppliers as delivering identical products at competitive rates. Sure, I’ll go for 2-ply rather than 1-ply, but beyond that I don’t really care much about who I purchase from.
At the other end of the spectrum, I have some companies that I think of as “trust-first.” I often even think of these people more as partners than suppliers. This is how I think of my financial advisor, my car repair shop, and my favorite coffee shop. WHO they are to me is much more important than functions and features. Even cost is in the middle of my criteria. And that will remain stable until something happens to break my trust with them.
Between those extremes, many of my purchases are driven by a reasonable level of trust, which narrows the list of suppliers. Then I look at features, immediate benefits, and competitive price.
The interesting thing about this breakdown is that trusting suppliers is more important as the cost goes up. That’s why major investments such as a house, vehicle, retirement savings or insurance will be more based on how much I understand, believe, and become motivated by their story.
And each customer is motivated by different things, because we all have different lives.
Chasing those differences and adapting to them can be a draining, even futile, exercise. You can adapt yourself to the different needs of 10 customers, even 100, but at some you’re giving inconsistent messages. People start getting really confused about who your company is.
When they’re confused, they don’t buy. Likely they’ll end up with a competitor who has a clearer and more compelling story for them.
Your authentic story has great marketing power. When you’re able to consistently articulate who you are, and why you do what you do, the door is now open for talking about how your products and services benefit customers’ lives.
Respect your prospects and trust their right to make their best decision, and they may trust you in return.
Yes, there are risks involved. When you open up your soul to someone, not everyone — gasp! — will like what they see. A few might refuse to purchase BECAUSE of that story.
In my view, that’s quite OK. Because you’d much rather have customers who love your company AND what it delivers. Not people who will purchase only until they find out a different truth about the company behind the product.
The key word here is attraction. Attracting those who will love your story. Those customers who will seek you out first because of who you are. Those who will even cut you a little slack when everything isn’t absolutely perfect.
I assume that your company isn’t trying to serve 7 billion people on the planet, even 325 million in the U.S. or 5.6 million in Colorado.
Focus instead on attracting those people who will love you and be loyal because of who you are. Invest in building trust with those people, and they’ll help bring in more just like them.
We’d like to think that customers buy our products because they’re so impressed with its features and functions. The problem is that this totally ignores other factors in the purchase decision.
The truth is that there are a lot of other elements, many of which can work in your favor if you just communicate differently.
When was the last time you vowed that “I’ll never work with that company again” after getting burned? Or when you’re looking for products, you think, “Hmm, I don’t think I’ll look at things from that company”?
It’s very common, and you as the customer have the full right to make your decisions however you want. Sure, you may not get the least expensive product, but that’s a tradeoff you’re willing to accept.
What’s going on here is that you have a disconnect of values. It happens all the time!
The food at the restaurant was great, but you didn’t care for the server who was a bit rude.
The salesperson at the car dealer didn’t treat you with respect.
You got sick of the amount of time you wasted trying to get a problem resolved with your cable.
You might think that I’m just talking about poor customer service, but it actually goes much deeper than that. Customer service is just a reflection of the values held by the company and the people you interacted with.
Here are some deeper conflicts of values:
You’ve decided you’re going to focus your investments in areas which support environmental health and societal healing.
You choose to spend extra at Whole Foods, Patagonia, and TOMS Shoes because you “want to support the good guys.”
You’ve avoided particular companies because of trouble they’ve gotten into with the government regulators.
You’ve participated in a boycott of a company because it holds a political stance you disagree with.
We can see that we’re now talking about things that have nothing at all to do with the company’s products. It’s about who the company is at its core, how they behave, and whether your personal values are in conflict.
So how can this work in your favor as a supplier of products and services?
It’s about being transparent and authentic. Yes, some people won’t like who you really are. But guess what? That would be a short term win – at best. More likely those are the customers who give you nothing but grief and anxiety.
Instead, you’re attracting those customers who love you BECAUSE of who you are, not in spite of it. These are the people who will turn into customers-for-life, and become your champions to bring in other customers. They’ll cut you some slack when you make a mistake or want to charge a little more.
Yes, you have to be a bit vulnerable. But it’s a powerful message, and in an age of information transparency, customers are seeking this out.
Your team is able to deliver much more than it does today. You yourself also have wonderful potential within you.
You probably see sparks of brilliance that come out now and then. But they seem so random! Making this a regular occurrence — even predictable — seems an insurmountable task.
It turns out that there are a number of useful things that help create the environment of sustainable productivity and creativity. But first you have to admit that everybody is different. What excites you is not the same as others on your team.
Each person has his or her own thinking, his or her own heart, his or her own desires. And don’t think that it’s good to just hire people who do think like you — that’s a recipe for disaster. That’s how you end up with an Enron.
If everyone thinks differently, then your first task is to at least understand what the range is. As your business grows, it will be impossible to have a super-deep relationship with each and every person. Even if you could, as the boss your role is to set direction that unites people toward a common goal.
Not to encourage the anarchy of “just do whatever makes you happy.”
The key is to work on your organization’s culture. You already have a culture, because one is created as soon as two people need to interact. It’s the way folks communicate, what they share in common and how disagreements get handled.
Since you already have a culture, how do you know if it’s good? Well, “good” can be defined as whatever helps you quickly and effectively meet your shared goals. If your people don’t have a consistent picture of what those goals are, that’s a good thing to fix.
You want to move away from “telling people how to do their job” and toward “telling them what they need to accomplish.” From how to what.
What elements of a culture support achieving your shared goals quickly and effectively?
Being clear on the shared goals
Seeing a clear connection between the individual’s work and the team’s results
Understanding how contribution is evaluated
Linking behaviors to recognition and rewards
Knowing where the boundaries are and how they are to be treated
I see capable leaders who can really miss this last one. Clear boundaries actually make everyone’s job easier, including yours. But they can be tricky to describe.
If the boss says “that behavior is unacceptable because I said so,” the employee learns to just be cautious and take no risks. It’s very hard to predict what the boss thinks is “unacceptable” with no explanation, so the best course is to just do nothing.
Instead, you show your people why you think something is good or bad. Clarifying shared goals and values helps a lot. Linking those to evaluation, recognition and reward makes it real.
You’re creating a picture in each employee’s mind that is pretty similar to what you have in mind. “Here’s what we’re trying to achieve, and how we go about doing it.”
Now that you’ve given your people a nice sandbox to play in, the next step is to actually let them play. That’s where inspiration and productivity comes from, because people like to infuse their personality into their work.
Sure, you have some tight processes that need to be executed flawlessly every time. You’re not going to let accounts go unpaid or defective products go out the door. But that leaves a surprising amount of flexibility with other parts of the job, or some of the ordering of tasks, or interaction with co-workers.
Those are the things where you can really help give your employees some latitude to become engaged. We all have rules we need to follow, but there are plenty of other enjoyable parts of life and work, right?
So help your people to see that their sandbox is larger than just the processes they need to comply with. There’s flexibility, and even room for fun.
Every person, every group has its superpower. In fact, it’s probably right under your nose and you don’t even recognize it.
Sometimes it’s a stunning differentiator in your product or service. That unique advantage that nobody else can touch.
But that’s actually pretty rare. Most of us are still searching for something that magical, because unfortunately we have to work and make money in the real world. With competitors and costs and all that messy stuff.
Consider instead that your superpower comes from your aspirations and vision. As an example, my own vision is a world and community is acting as a powerful force for good, not just for giving people jobs and making people rich.
For me, jobs and wealth are both laudable, but they’re not the end of the story. Beyond those short term benefits is a belief that business is honorable, purposeful, and beneficial. More precisely, I work with people who hold those beliefs.
Do all my clients fit the profile? No. But it’s an aspiration that I hold, and that I help my clients to nurture. Merely because that’s the world we want to live in.
So how is that a “superpower” for me and my clients? Because it provides a powerful focus and energy, one which has sustained me for over a decade now. And it’s common that my clients felt that force – even if they couldn’t articulate it well – even before they started their business.
It’s a “superpower” because it focuses, energizes, and even differentiates. I become a different coach because of this particular focus, which yields value to my clients as well.
For you, a superpower might come from the way you think, or the particular customers you best serve. Even how you form and manage your team.
Does it show up in the list of features and benefits for your products? Maybe. Often it’s just indirectly linked. But being in business isn’t just about your products, although they’re important. It’s also about the full range of stakeholders in what you do: customers, partners, channels, employees, suppliers, yourself and your family.
Revenue is the fuel which keeps your “engine” running, but it’s not the reason why the engine is running.
The engine should be taking you someplace. Somewhere better, more beneficial than where you are right now. It’s steered by your direction, purpose, and superpower.
I was talking with a gentleman last week who happened to be traveling through Fort Collins and picked up my business card. It turns out that he was out here from the west coast because he has a desire to move to Colorado at some point in the future.
Perhaps. Maybe. Some day.
Being a coach, I had to ask him how serious he is about this. And, honestly, he didn’t really know. It’s just something he’s been pondering.
That’s fine, but we all have general thoughts about what we might want the future to look like for our lives or our businesses. It doesn’t move into action until we start getting more specific.
The beginning of a new year is a great time to look at those things we didn’t make much progress with and ask: how serious am I about it?
If I want to grow the number of customers or employees or locations, well, it’s time to ask:
Is this the year to actually make something happen?
What’s the first step?
What do I need to do differently than I did before?
How will I know I’m making progress?
I find this last question to be the most practical and powerful. After I’ve decided to go after that goal, and what steps I need to start working on, there’s still a big chance that I’m going to get derailed.
I’ll get busy. Distracted.
So I need to decide how I’m going to monitor my progress. If I want more customers, I’ll look at the number of prospect conversations I have.
If I want to become more efficient at managing my inventory, then I may track not only inventory on hand, but how much progress I’m making on ordering the RIGHT inventory which will give me the best ROI.
These measures make it very real, and I can be encouraged by the steps of progress I’m making. Now I’ve moved out of having a vague desire for a better future, into taking specific actions and making my future real.
There are lots and lots of people who are affected by your company. Even if you’re a super small business, you still have yourself, your family, customers and partners.
As you grow, you’ll include employees, their families, and an ever-growing array of people to whom you deliver value.
This is why the concept of “stakeholders” is so powerful. Typically we’d talk about shareholders, but that’s a really limited view of success and impact. Focusing too much on shareholders is dangerous, and can lead you to some really unbalanced decisions.
My best clients realize that their business also contributes to the larger community. I’m not just talking about charitable donations, either. They’re making a powerful difference to peoples’ quality of life and helping to solve larger problems.
My structure for stakeholder analysis is very simple:
Identify your stakeholders, and who you’d like to impact;
Understand their needs and wants;
Figure out what you’re going to do to impact them.
The first step typically includes a “survey of our universe,” including customers, suppliers, investors, external partners and employees. Plus one crucial person often neglected: yourself. If you’re burned out and uninspired, success will be impossible.
Second, you’ll need to delve into each stakeholder’s world. Sure, employees need a paycheck and a certain amount of job security. But each person will have his or her own career goals, family situation, and work preferences. Customer need whatever value your product gives them, but they also are looking to use that to address larger concerns in their lives.
The third step is a combination of responding to others’ needs and to your own. This is where the intelligent balance comes into play. You’re trying to create a situation that is as win-win-win as possible, and sustainable.
This seems like a lot of work to go to, just to try to make a lot of people happy!
This exercise is incredibly valuable because it brings you clarity, alignment, and sustainability. That’s the foundation of success in business.
Imagine that you have a shop downtown selling, oh, anything that’s blue. You call it Cool Blues. Kind of weird, but you’ve found that there are actually lots of people who are totally passionate about the color.
It’s easy to identify your first stakeholder: those customers who have this unusual passion. You could start by describing them as “anybody who likes blue stuff,” but that really says nothing about what’s going on in their lives. Maybe they tend to feel a certain way, hang out at certain places, and like a certain kind of music. Or maybe this tends to be a phase that teenagers go through, and you need to connect with that ever-changing population.
You’ve grown large enough that you actually have employees! They’re the ones who were wearing blue nail polish and shoes even before they started working for you. What’s going on in their lives? Are they also just going through a teenage phase, or is something else driving their passion for your store?
Clearly you have suppliers. They’re the ones who are mystified as to why you are ordering all their products in only one color, and have made really strange special requests. How much do you understand why they run their businesses the way they do? Do they understand your unusual focus? Does that create new opportunities?
You’re a pretty smart cookie, so you’ve worked with a number of promotional partners. You were right there talking to the CEO of Blue Credit Union. You’re even thinking about a series of jazz and blues concerts at Blue Door Cocktail Bar. How much do you understand why they’re motivated to work with you? What ideas have you put together that have powerful innovation?
You’re also passionate about the community, and you have this clever angle. So you’re sponsoring events at Poudre High School (blue and silver) and give money to the local police force.
How much are you thinking about their needs as stakeholders in your business? Sure, you’re supporting activities and promoting your business. But is that it? Is there, perhaps, some valuable overlap between your work at the high school and the fact that your customers include a lot of teenagers? Should you be exploring teens battling depression, perhaps?
This may seem like a big stretch for your little company. But if you care for your community, they’ll care about you. You’ll make a powerful impact and create a more sustainable business.
At the end of the day, isn’t that what you really want?
Companies market their products. They market the customer benefits.
They rarely talk about their deeply held values, as if that’s not relevant or interesting. But younger parts of our population are placing more importance on the company that stands behind their products.
We older folks do that, too, by the way. We just don’t tend to be quite as vocal about it.
When an entire world of products and services are available to you at a moment’s notice, how are you supposed to make purchase decisions? When you have no attachment to the providers, many people will pick the lowest cost option. They might be satisfied, or not, but there’s little loyalty involved.
I assume that you want loyal customers.
The question is whether people incorporate your company’s values into their decisions to purchase your products. The answer is yes when:
They sense a deeper alignment to your values – “you speak my language”
They want to see you succeed – “you’re the good guys”
They don’t have other powerful factors – “all products are pretty much the same”
The question remains, though: How actively should you promote your company’s values to your target market?
If you’re not proud of your values, then you shouldn’t. Instead, you should work on changing them.
But if you want the world to know that you’re a great company, then by all means be honest and transparent in your marketing. Otherwise, your competition will paint the picture for you, and they’re probably not going to do what you’d like.
Just don’t be dishonest and devious. We’ve all learned how to sense that from a mile away.
A new business concept is spreading around the world. You might know it under the labels “conscious”, “mission-driven”, “values-based”, “socially conscious”, or “benefit corporation.”
But it’s really not that new. In some ways, it’s a return to the days when businesses were an integral part of the community–not just treating them as consumers from which money is to be extracted.
Milton Friedman captured our current philosophy of business pretty well back in 1970:
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”
Don’t get me wrong: profit isn’t evil. As a matter of fact, that is exactly the way that businesses are sustainable. Which is a good thing for society.
But the problem with this is that phrase “one and only one.” Placing profit as the only responsibility of business leads us to a mindset where people only matter to the degree that they can be turned into dollar signs of revenue, expense, or profit.
I find that highly disrespectful. Companies should exist for the benefit of people.
As a result, I’ve been engaged heavily with this new thinking. I started writing about what I called “the Values Based Business” back in 2013, and became a director in the local Conscious Capitalism chapter.
It’s an exciting and inspiring space. It’s amazing how many leaders are truly understanding that benefiting people turns into benefiting the business. When you have inspired customers and employees, they’re more loyal and productive and your profits go up.
It’s not rocket science.
We talk with other Conscious Capitalism chapters around the globe, and something odd has emerged. Many leaders in Colorado question why this is anything special: “Don’t all companies realize that their community matters and they should be doing good?”
They’re right, of course. If all businesses developed a balanced view of decision making, there would be no need for this new thinking.
Unfortunately, most companies are stuck back in Milton Friedman’s mindset.
I’m grateful that Colorado seems to be further ahead, and there are spots of light in places like Austin and Portland. And surprisingly, huge advances are being made in South America and Africa.
New thinkers are emerging all the time, in every industry. It’s much easier, of course, for those who aren’t embedded in the traditional way of doing things. That’s always the nature of innovation.
If you’re not the innovator in your industry, someone else is. Quite likely that kid fresh out of school who is questioning the rules.
This is especially true of business models and practices. We focus so much on innovative products that we forget to question our assumptions about HOW and WHY we do business.
Appropriately, my message has a triple bottom line:
If you’re working that balance between doing well and doing good, congratulations! You’re on the leading edge of a powerful wave.
If you’re in a more traditional company and industry, you’d better find out what this movement is about. Evidence is starting to show that stakeholder-focused businesses are actually MORE profitable than their competitors.
It’s a long term journey. Continue learning, growing, and incorporating whatever new ideas which will add value to you, your company, and society at large.
Business is becoming a positive force in creating a better world!
Everybody wants to have a great company and a great life.
I’m fortunate to work with a number of inspiring business leaders, but it’s easy for them to lose their spark under the day-to-day pressure. No matter what your story is, you still have to make sure that nitty-gritty stuff gets done.
Paying the bills. Filing taxes. Paying your workers.
So the question is: Why shouldn’t I just focus on getting the work done, and avoid all that “mission” and “purpose” and “values” stuff? What is it getting me?
Actually, it’s probably giving you more business value than you give it credit for.
Your employees are inspired to be more productive when they believe that they’re doing something important and meaningful. They’re more loyal as well.
Your marketing has more attractive power when it’s based on authenticity and something your customers are inspired about. This DOES affect their purchase decisions.
Your partners care more about your success when they see the deeper alignment between their interests and yours. Especially when you’re achieving something powerful together.
There’s just one catch to this, though. A big one.
In an age of such transparency, it really doesn’t so matter that you say wonderful and inspiring things. Well, that opens the door, I guess, but you ACTIONS count for 100 times more.
Yes, strive to be the “good guy.” That starts the conversation.
But then align you actions with your words. That will drive business results.
Does it guarantee success? No, sorry. You still have to run your business well. Create the right business model. Build a great team. Pay attention to money and inventory and all that grunge work.
But striving to be the “good guy” will differentiate you in a way that’s hard to match.