Fixing this problem starts with changing the way we think about and define ‘business development’. The work of business development is to build value that customers can buy. The work of sales and marketing is to go out and sell value, once it has been created.
Sales and marketing are functions, while business development is an organisation-wide, cultural intention.
Everyone in your business has a role to play in value creation and maintaining a USP, and therefore also in business development.
When we wonder why a sales or marketing effort hasn’t been successful, it is often because we aren’t investing in business development; we aren’t actually making a concerted effort to build commercial value that customers can buy.
As a result, our sales and marketing teams are often forced to trade on credentials and experience – things that our business has already built or done – which will deliver diminishing returns over time.
Credentials or obituary?
Reading the credentials of some businesses is like reading an obituary.
Take a look at yours and see if you can spot what I mean. Are you talking a lot about the great things you did a long time ago? Does it sound like you work in a vibrant, growing business, or one that’s in a holding pattern or slow decline?
Customers will buy based on who you could be tomorrow and, if it’s going to be a long relationship, in three or five years’ time. They are interested in what’s coming next – what you’re working on, investigating, tinkering with and investing in.
Stop swimming in the sea of same
When comparing the marketing and credentials material of organisations operating in some services industries, you could be forgiven for concluding that they were actually the same business, just trading under different names.
Consider the following (fictionalised) examples from the mortgage broking and insurance industries:
‘We offer decades of trusted financial connections and experience. We partner with some of the leading banks, building societies and credit unions in Australia and take a personalised approach to your individual needs.
You get expert advice and guidance to find a competitive mortgage and home loan rate suited to your individual situation. Best of all, our service is completely free.’
‘We are one of Australia’s largest insurance companies, with operations in every state and territory. In business for more than five decades, we provide personalised service to each and every one of our customers.
You can contact us at any time, over the phone or online, to make a claim or inquire about our range of insurance products. We offer car, home, life, business and travel insurance, as well as specialised boat and pet insurance.’
Do any of these descriptions sound like your business? Do they look familiar in terms of the way you’re accustomed to talking about yourself? And could they equally describe most of your competitors?
Industries develop a kind of ‘common language’ that helps professionals in the industry communicate with one another. This is useful to a point, until it becomes a common marketing language as well.
The more that customers experience this common marketing language, the less differentiation they see – and the more likely they are to commoditise businesses.
The problem with USPs
For a long time, the world of marketing was very taken with the idea of USPs. The idea was to find the thing that’s unique about your business, compared with others in your market, and position yourself on that.
This sounds like a reasonable idea, but it’s wrong on four levels:
1. It encourages us to look externally for validation, by comparing ourselves with competitors. This is often a fruitless exercise with negative psychological effects.
2. It’s very superficial. A USP is often something that just skims the surface of what a business does; it’s an attention-grabber, rather than a deal-maker.
3. It uses the word ‘selling’. Business development is about creating value, and selling is just the transactional bit that follows on from that.
4. Finally, just because something is unique, doesn’t mean it’s valuable. The world is full of unique things that no one bought, including Jell-O for salads, toaster bacon, and blue french fries (all real products that tanked horribly).
What you need to find is your unique value proposition, not your unique selling proposition.
Creating commercial value that customers want to buy
Value is like a snowflake – no two commercial value propositions are ever exactly the same. This is because every customer has different hopes, dreams, goals and problems to solve. Yet like a snowflake, commercial value has a six-sided structure, and it is quite beautiful when you can see it up close.
Each of us buys with our gut, head and heart. Within each of these drivers, there is a left-brained (quantifiable) and right-brained (qualitative) attribute for value.
When we can explain the value of our offering according to these attributes, it helps us to talk about what we do in a way that speaks directly to the gut, head and heart of our prospective buyers.
Firstly, visceral (or ‘gut’) value attributes include cost and risk. Author and neuroendocrinologist Dr Deepak Chopra says that gut feelings are “every cell in our body making a decision”. Buying decisions are often triggered by fear, and we can help our customers to understand and protect against their fears.
Secondly, buyers value logical attributes like productivity and reduced complexity. The ‘head’ drives logic, and most of us have way too much going on in there to be logical about all of it. This phenomenon is known as ‘cognitive load’, and we can play a role in reducing this burden for our customers.
Finally, buyers value aspirational (or ‘heart’) attributes like quality and connectivity. Buyers want to make an impact and create a legacy.
Understanding this, we can set our customers on a different – smarter and better – path than they would be able to choose on their own.
When you are pitching for new business, thinking more laterally about the commercial value you generate – and not just the work you do – will help you to move your attention away from yourself, to the customer and their needs.
This in turn will help to break down the intangibility barrier we face when selling services, and protect us against commoditisation.
Robyn Haydon is a business development author of three books: Winning Again, The Shredder Test and the recently released Value: how to talk about what you do so people want to buy it.