B2B sales: The peril of generic 'unique value propositions'
If you were foolish enough to listen to some B2B marketers and agencies, you might conclude that the simple act of developing a generic “unique value proposition” for your organisation would somehow automatically make you more relevant to your prospective customers.
Well, the idea might possibly work in some B2C or very simple B2B environments, but the very thought is a complete nonsense in any complex B2B sales situation.
Every customer situation is different. Every stakeholder has different motivations. Every opportunity has specific nuances. Generic platitudes are not enough.
What may seem unique and relevant to one customer is likely to be completely irrelevant to another (apparently quite similar) prospective customer. If you spend a moment thinking through the implications, it becomes obvious that anything intended to appeal to the crowds is unlikely to sound anything other than high-level and vague to any specific customer.
So what are we to do? Abandon the quest to establish our unique value? That would clearly be an over-reaction. The most sensible thing we can do is to start thinking of our value propositions not as generic statements, but as a series of nested elements.
I understand why companies believe that having an umbrella “unique value proposition” can be helpful in ensuring high level messaging consistency in areas such as their website and their generic marketing communications. But that’s all it can ever be: an umbrella.
Every stakeholder has different motivations. Every opportunity has specific nuances. Generic platitudes are not enough.
In complex B2B sales environments with complicated buying journeys, we would be far better served by thinking about our value proposition as being a layered position (not proposition) that becomes progressively more specific, unique and relevant with each iteration.
The market layer
At the highest level or layer, we can think in terms of a market-wide value position. This - designed to appeal to the organisations and stakeholders that represent our core target markets - should serve to differentiate our high-level approach from all the other options that a prospective buyer might consider looking at.
The danger, of course, is in trying to appeal to such a big swathe of the market that we say nothing distinctive at all and end up sounding just like all the other players in our space. I believe that even these high-level value positions should seek to establish clear contrast.
I’m a great fan of adopting a “Marmite” approach: if we seek to appeal to all, we will end up being loved by no-one. Far better to have a clear position that has both raving fans and organisations that would never come near us with a bargepole (on the grounds that they would probably never be good customers anyway).
The positioning formula that Geoffrey Moore first proposed in “Crossing the Chasm” (you can see a variation here) can provide a very useful internal foundation for our market-layer positioning efforts (it tends not to be so effective if used verbatim externally).
But developing a credible and distinctive high-level position is just the foundation…
The account or organisation layer
We then need to take this generalised high-level market position and adapt it to resonate with what we know about a specific target account or organisation. This next-level positioning must be tailored by each sales person to the company they are targeting.
We will inevitably up-weight some aspects of our market layer proposition, down-weight some other elements and introduce new value messages that are specific to the position we want to establish with the organisation - but we can only do this by developing an intimate knowledge of what is important to them.
The functional or departmental layer
For any complex sale into any organisation of any size, the individual functions or departments - whilst (hopefully) sharing some overall value priorities with the organisation as a whole - will also have some unique value priorities that we are going to have to address if we hope to get their support.
We need to be able to anticipate and answer their question “what’s the specific value of your offering to my department or function?” Even if we don’t get asked this directly, you can safely bet that this is part of any potential customer’s consideration.
The role or stakeholder layer
But even below these layers (and often as just or more important than them) is our specific value to the key roles and stakeholders who are going to have to make any buying decision and - just as important - to live with the consequences.
We need to be able to clearly position what our specific value is to each of these critical stakeholders. But this does not mean inventing a set of completely disjointed messages for each of these individuals.
Research published by the CEB (now part of Gartner) in The Challenger Customer showed that this was a unproductive - and desperately hard to implement - strategy, and that we need to work through what they describe as a "mobilizer" inside the customer.
We need to think of our value position as a set of nested custom-crafted dolls - each layer being consistent with the overall position but tailored to address the priorities of the specific audience. The higher layers need to provide an integrating platform for the lower layer details, and the lower layers need to consistently support the high-level overview.
The only way we can achieve this is by having the right conversations with the right stakeholders in our significant sales opportunities, and consciously creating and testing that our messages resonate at every layer.
Built through insights, research and conversations
If we are to develop these layered positions, we can only do so through a combination of insights, research and conversations. We can harness our collective experience to assess what is likely to resonate at each level, test it and adapt it as necessary.
The more we understand about how we have helped similar organisations, departments, functions and roles, the easier it will be to start with credible hypotheses regarding these tailored layered value positions - as long as we are careful not to blindly assume that what worked under one set of circumstances will inevitably work without adaption in another apparently similar situation.
Mastering the layer cake
But if we can master these layers of value - even if we can just become slightly less overtly generic than our competition - we can stand out from the crowd in a way that is both distinctive and highly relevant to our customers. That feels like an investment worth making to me. What about you?