I said it at least half a dozen times in my last job interview. At some point I let myself lose count and just accept how much I love the phrase “value proposition.” I was being asked how I planned to enforce a set of policies I’d be developing in the prospective role, when I had no authority over the people expected to follow them. It was a question intended as much as a critical thinking exercise as a sincere inquiry—how do you get people to follow, engage with, or buy from you, when ultimately they don’t have to?
Make them an offer they can’t refuse.
The value proposition is how you uniquely satisfy the wants and needs of your customers. It’s the answer to everyone’s favorite question: “What’s in it for me?” Whether we’re trying to sell muffins or change organizational behavior, we’re challenged with finding the sweet spot where what we want the customer to do intersects with what they want to do. The most powerful tool we have for getting there is a properly articulated and implemented value proposition.
To get to an articulated value proposition, you need to know:
- the wants, needs, and fears of the customer;
- the features, benefits, and experience of the product; and
- the potential competitors and substitutes for the product.
The order isn’t random; the customer always comes first. In, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Al Reis and Jack Trout write: “When you want to communicate the advantages of…a product or even yourself, you must turn things inside out…You look inside your prospect’s mind…You concentrate on the perceptions of the prospect. Not the reality of a product.” One of the most useful insights from my years in café management is that people love to be told what to order: seasonal specials, barista’s choice, muffin of the month. The specifics of the product are fluff; the most important thing at the point of sale, service, or schmooze, is being responsive and engaged with the customer.
Customer service is everything.
About 70% of Americans say they’ll spend more money at businesses that provide better customer service, and remarkably (to me at least) we are more satisfied than ever with the service we’re receiving. This is particularly true for millenials, and significantly less so for older generations. A powerful takeaway for brands, it also speaks to the subjective nature of “good service.” (It’s less likely that older consumers are having radically different experiences, and a lot more likely that they are perceiving them differently than their younger counterparts.) Plus, the meaning of customer “service” tends to get muddled, and used interchangeably with a family of similar terms like “support” or “care.” When we talk about the latter, we’re usually referring to damage control–how a firm responds to what was actually a bad customer service experience in the first place.
We should be defining customer service more objectively and proactively: good customer service is the experience of a well-executed value proposition. Great customer service is when you put a cherry on top. And bad customer service happens when either:
- the value proposition is poorly communicated, meaning customer expectations are out of sync with business intentions; or
- the business fails to deliver on some aspect of its proposition.
Imagine the last time you were at Wal-Mart. Were you swept away by the ambiance? Did you have friendly and attentive staff waiting on you hand and foot? … Yet for all the times we have collectively cursed Wal-Mart “customer service,” 140 million of us are still shopping there on a regular basis. (As a nation, we do it more frequently than flossing or exercising.) How is this possible if customer service is so paramount to consumer satisfaction and repeat patronage? Wal-Mart may not be the happiest place on earth, but the truth is that they actually deliver great customer service (said no one ever, until now). We don’t go there for the atmosphere, and more to the point, that’s not what they ever promised us. Their value proposition is focused on price and convenience: “Everyday low prices for a broad range of goods that are always in stock in convenient geographic locations.” As long as we feel we’re getting the very best price on the products we need, when we need them, Wal-Mart is delivering on their commitment. And that’s why, much to our own chagrin and bewilderment, we keep going back.
Everything is customer service.
Let go of preconceptions about over-the-counter transactions; we all work in customer service. In fact, we live customer service. We all have stakeholders, internal and external, that look to us to provide something of value. It could be clients, coworkers, family or friends. We are vying for the “business” of carrying on relationships with them, and should understand and promote our brand to them in every interaction.
Sure there’s a bit of a stigma against commodifying ourselves like this. There’s an understandable air of superficiality brought on by the digital age, and a pressure to always be “on,” always be “selling.” But Glenn Llopis wrote for Forbes that personal branding is something more than social media smoke and mirrors. It’s “a full-time commitment to the journey of defining yourself as a leader and how this will shape the manner in which you will serve others.”
Evaluating distinguishing qualities and how they can be leveraged to improve the lives of others: this is the process of building a brand, of designing a value proposition. At the risk of sounding melodramatic–hell, it’s the process of growing as a person. And no matter which side of the cafe counter you’re standing on, you’re delivering customer service. I suggest we all put some thought into the promises we’re making, and how we plan to deliver on them.
PS… value proposition 😛