Monday, October 19, 2009

Is your purpose bigger than your product?

Post 349 - Answering the following questions will help clarify the value you aim to deliver to your customers. Some businesses call this their value proposition. I've also heard it referred to as a brand promise or a unique selling proposition. Whatever you call it, start by answering these four questions:

• Why is your company here - what's its purpose? ...........

• What product or service is your company selling? ...........

• Who is your target customer for this product or service? ..........

• What makes your offering unique and different? ...........

Southwest Airlines is about giving people the freedom to fly. Nike is another company that understands its purpose clearly. It's always had the idea that it's more than a sneaker company. Nike is about getting in the game, being more than a spectator in life, and embracing activity. As their advertising says, "Just do it." If you go to their headquarters in Oregon, it's like being in a gym: it breathes active lifestyle. Because that's what they're about and they've consistently executed around this idea. So, start by getting everyone clear that your purpose is bigger than your product.

Then ask a group of your employees to explain your company's purpose and value proposition. How many different answers do you think you'll get? Probably as many as there's people in the group, in addition to, "What do you mean by purpose and value proposition?" If this is true, it's a good thing to know. Half of the battle is understanding that you've got a problem. As investor Anthony Tjan reminds us, "Customers simply don't trust institutions as much today. Particularly large businesses. The main reason is that we now live in an 'information everywhere' and more transparent world. Every customer has a camera in their cell phone, a Facebook in their pocket and Twitter at their fingertips. This means we constantly hear and see evidence of businesses not walking their talk. Their products don't match their promise. In order to regain or retain this trust, you must simply make sure that all your products, your merchandising, your advertising, your people and the totality of your touch points with consumers sing from the same hymn book."

So the goal here isn't to have employees mindlessly parrot the answers to the these questions. Instead, they need to feel that the customer proposition is true and intuitively believe in the company's purpose. Ideally, you want them to understand that together, you're creating a business that's trying to do something significantly better than other companies in your industry. With a clear purpose as the starting point, clarify your message first to employees, then to customers, align your company's goals with it, and improve your employees' ability to articulate it. From an execution perspective, you have to think big, start small, and scale fast. You need to start with a miniature versions of your grand idea so you can validate its parts, and then iterate and tweak it constantly. Whenever the message about customer value is edited or changed, apply the change across all communication channels. Understand which materials customers see most frequently and periodically check for consistency across all these materials. In addition:

• Make sure that a clear, consistent, and frequent focus on the customer message is delivered and reinforced from the very top of the company on down.

• Create forums for all employees to articulate the value proposition. This could include exercises where employees listen to elevator pitches from their fellow employees which are video-taped and then discussed for further learning.

• Arrange for employees from different parts of the business (functions, levels, departments, divisions) to go through the exercise of answering the questions described above. Share the biggest disconnects with the group, explore their impact, and develop suggestions to resolve them.

• And remember that your purpose isn't just what you "tell" customers, but especially what you do. The best way to disappoint everyone is to over-promise and under-deliver. Therefore you must be humble and committed at the same time. In fact, customers are more forgiving when you make mistakes if those mistakes are honest efforts in trying to improve towards a known and worthwhile direction.

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