All enterprises have a purpose. That’s what makes them an enterprise, rather than a crowd.
The purpose can be simply capital growth of course. But for most small businesses I know, capital growth isn’t enough. They have a broader, more primary purpose.
This primary purpose encapsulates the value you create for the people you serve – value that, being worth more to them than the money in their pocket, delivers a profit, so your enterprise can continue.
It works as a two-way mirror, encompassing both what drove you as founder, to set up the enterprise, and what attracts customers, investors and potential employees to enrol with you on a journey towards achieving that purpose.
This purpose is your Promise of Value. It can be summed up simply as what you do for the people you serve.
Unfortunately it’s rarely spelt out as clearly as it could be. You know it’s there because you have some clients who love you, and recommend you to all their friends. But it’s not as embedded as it should be – otherwise you wouldn’t be frustrated with your team’s inability to deliver it as well you would like.
So, the first step towards disappearing as ‘The Boss’ is to get crystal clear on what this Promise of Value really is for your business.
Let’s start with the what you do part.
Get your whole team together and ask this simple question:
“What’s brilliant about this business?”
Get everyone to spend 10 minutes answering this question on a generous pile of sticky notes, then get each person to share what they’ve written and why they wrote it.
As they do this, listen out for gems.
When asked ‘what’s brilliant?‘, people often start with cliches like ‘quality’ or ‘service’.
If you encourage them to explain why they’ve written that, they often voice values, behaviours and specific examples that are far more reflective of the value you bring to clients. Capture these on new sticky notes as you go.
It’s an afternoon’s work, but you’ll be glad you did it, because by answering this question with your team, you’ll not only articulate your own values and preferred behaviours, you’ll also identify values and behaviours you share with at least some of your clients. You’ll know exactly who they are. They’ll be the clients you most enjoy working with, and who most appreciate what you do for them.
What’s more, you’ll have energised your team.
Now, as a group or by yourself, put yourself in your client’s shoes and look at the words and phrases you’ve produced from their perspective. This will help you to move your thinking from ‘features’ (“we produce accurate accounting information”), to ‘benefits’ (“we make sure you have the information you need to run your business well”).
Re-word some of the phrases you’ve identified to reflect this.
Next, if you already have clients who love you, ask them why. They’ll identify benefits you didn’t even know you delivered (“you always have time to listen to me”, ”you really get to know me and my business”, “you find me suppliers I can trust”, “your networking meetings are always fun.”). Add these to your list.
All this is getting closer to a clearer picture of ‘what you do’, but to really get to the bottom of your Promise, you need to ask another, deeper question:
“Who do you help your ideal client to become?“
There’ll be clues to this in the pile of sticky notes you’ve collected. Look out for words and phrases that capture something of what you make a client feel, or what you help them achieve.
This will be the hardest part of the exercise, but it’s important, because at the heart of every Promise of Value is an unspoken promise of transformation, that goes something like this:
“Working with us will enable you to become who you want to be, in a way that is congruent with your values, beliefs and style, so you can join the tribe that feels like home for you, with the status you seek.”
Most of the time, your clients aren’t buying to meet a simple need, whatever it is you ‘sell’ – be it food, clothes or toilet paper. What they’re buying is the chance to be a better version of themsleves – stronger, fairer, kinder, cleverer, more authoritative, more creative, more exotic – the list goes on.
Whether you sell a product or service, the challenge is the same – to uncover what it is your ideal client is really looking for when they buy from you. As someone famously said, “people don’t buy drills, they buy holes in the wall!”.
That’s not true of course. Nobody buys a hole in the wall. They don’t even buy a bookshelf on the wall, or a picture hung, or a wooden toy mended.
Putting up a shelf, or hanging a picture or mending the wooden toy might make a father feel he is taking care of his family, as his father did before him. He’s out at work all day, so he misses out on mealtimes and bedtimes, but he can do his bit for the nest they’re all in.
The same electric drill, used the same way, might make a woman feel independent, capable, self-sufficient, so that when she chooses to settle down its because she wants to, not because she has to.
That’s a lot to pack in to a product or service. But if you can even get close to painting pictures like this for the clients you work best with, you’re well on the way to working out what you do for the people you serve.
Even better, you’ll have a much clearer picture of the kind of people they should be.
You may even be inspired to come up with new ways to serve them, now you know what they really want.
In other words, you’ll have defined your Promise of Value.
Now the team that used to feel more like a crowd can coalesce around it to build your business into a true enterprise, delivering its purpose with intention and focus.
And you can design processes that support them to do that, even when you’re not in the room.
Next time we’ll look at what those processes could be, and where tribes come into it all.