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Can Value Propositions Be Generic?

by David Brock on October 13th, 2009

My friend Christian Mauer has written an interesting post entitled, “Can Value Propositions Be Generic?”   I can’t resist weighing in.

The purpose of a value proposition is to help the customer understand What’s In It For Them (WIIFM) for implementing your solution.  The value proposition is what the customer uses to compare alternatives–so clearly to win, your value proposition has to be superior in meeting their requirements.

So does the Value Proposition need to be unique?  Well – it depends.  How’s that for taking a strong position?

Here’s the problem with many of these discussions, Value Is In The Eye Of The Beholder.  It is meaningless to start a discussion about value propositions without starting with the customer.  Each person involved in a decision, whether buying a product personally or participating in a business solution, has differing views of what satisfies their requirements and why they buy.  If our value proposition does not directly address what is being sought, then our likelihood of being selected is at risk.

As many of you know, I’m a bicycling enthusiast.  This past weekend I was talking to a friend who had just bought exactly the same expensive component I had recently bought.  We were talking about it, and why we had purchased this item.  My friend had done a lot of analysis about the performance characteristics of the component and how it would help him be a better rider.  In talking to the sales person, their discussion was all about this.  In my purchase, I bought it because it was cool, Lance uses it, and other cyclists would talk to me about how cool it was—shallow person that I am.  We bought the same product but had very different perceptions of the value we would get from it.

This applies in every purchase decision customers make.  As sales professionals, it is critical that we connect with the customer to determine what they value and demonstrate how our solution addresses these needs.

So what’s this mean, can value propositions be generic?  The answer is still, it depends. 

I’ve written before about the need for a Dynamic approach to developing and communicating value propositions (by the way, Christian writes about this very nicely, as well).  Too often, organizations develop a static value proposition.  It’s posted on their web sites, it becomes a mindless mantra that marketing and sales people babble, hoping to win, then it’s changed, when the competition develops a better one.

Value propositions have a life cycle–both relative to specific customer buying cycles and to competitiveness over time.  There is a role for a static or generic value proposition, this is very early in a customer buying cycle.  This generic value proposition–targeted for specific customer segments, is what creates interest and awareness with potential buyers.  It’s what get you invited to the party.  These generic value propositions are very powerful at this point.  They don’t have to be superior or differentiated, they just have to be good enough to get you into consideration.

Once you are being considered by the customer—with competitive alternatives, it is the job of the sales professional to determine what customers value, then present the capabilities of the solution in terms that the customer values.  As in the story my friend’s and my purchase behaviors, the smart sales professional will know that I am not interested in performance characteristics—in fact don’t see any value in it and any discussion of this is a waste of my time.  The smart sales professional will talk about how cool it will be for me.

Does the value proposition need to be concrete?  Absolutely, we need to be specific about the results that can be achieved by implementing our solution.  My friend Jill Konrath talks about using a concrete or specific example as part of every value proposition.  She cites many examples for gaining attention and opening the door with customers.  I do the smae thing in my prospecting efforts.  For example, in speaking with sales executives, I often approach them saying, “In working with organizations like yours, we have increased sales productivity by as much as 35%.”  This concrete example gains interest with the customer, but is good only for getting interest and into consideration.  What the customer really wants to know is what will it do for me?  As you participate in the customer’s buying process, you need to be concrete-specific about the results the customer should expect to receive.  They don’t care about other customers getting 35% improvement in productivity, they care about what they will achieve. 

We keep looking for short cuts and silver bullets to developing, communicating, and delivering value.  It doesn’t work this way.  As a customer, I resent this, generic or concrete–it’s not good enough for me.  What will it do for me?  Until I know this, no sales person will earn my business. 

Generic, even concrete generic value propositions open the door and enable you to compete.  But that’s just the start.  Until you address the customer’s specific priorities in terms that are meaningful to them, you aren’t solving their problems.

By the way, Christian is doing a great webinar on this.  Be sure to tune in. 

Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

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5 Comments
  1. I too, cannot resist. To me, the value proposition is the essential building block of a company’s marketing and sales strategy. My answer to the question of static vs. custom is the same as yours, it depends. But to me, it depends on how you define value proposition. A company needs a concrete value proposition in order to create its marketing strategy. The basics of who you are, what you do, why it matters, and to whom, drive content decisions, media decisions, and everything else you do in marketing (or should do). Furthermore, having a well defined value proposition is necessary to get buy-in from other key stakeholders like employees and/or shareholders. At this level, concrete is necessary. At the individual sale level, I don’t even think a value proposition should be used. At that level, the sales professional should be positioning the solution to cater to a specific need, and desire for value. A “value proposition” at this point is, as you point out, meaningless to a customer. For me, perhaps, the talk of value proposition, should be banned from conversations about sales. The value proposition is an upstream tool only.

    All of that said, although the “value proposition” has to have some concreteness to it, it also has to be a living thing, constantly being refined by market and customer feedback. Who a company is, what they do, why it matters, and to whom, are moving targets for successful companies.

    • Keith: I couldn’t agree with you more. A company needs to stand for something–for its customers, employees, shareholders and community. This is at the core of its value proposition. You’ve given me a great idea for another blog post! Regards, Dave

  2. David –
    It was great to see you making the point that value is in the eye of the beholder, supported by your excellent cycling anecdote. It’s a welcome counter to the usual angle where ‘value proposition’ is used simply, and wrongly, as a synonym for benefits statement, elevator speech, USP, or advertising slogan.

    But can value propositions be generic? If, as you rightly observe, value is subjective, it follows that “generic value proposition” risks being an oxymoron.

    I am co-author of a book on Value Propositions – see http://creatinganddeliveringyourvalueproposition.com/ – and when discussing this topic we concluded that, at the corporate level, it can be helpful to rename the high-level statement as a Value Hypothesis (particularly in situations where a new offering is being presented without the benefit of any pre-existing customer value experience).

    Then value propositions apply to specific situations. They have weight where they are related to specific market segments, specific offerings used over specific time frames, specific sales opportunities, and to targeted people within those specific sales opportunities (e.g. CEO, CFO, CMO). To relate this back to another important point that you make, this is where concreteness comes from.

    What is, of course, crucially important is that there is congruence among all of the levels of value propositions: the view at 35,000 feet needs to be aligned with the view at street level.

    Regards
    David

  3. Hi David. This is all a very new area for me so I just wanted to say thanks for a very insightful and thought provoking piece of writing. David/Keith – same applies for your comments. I am working on defining the value proposition for the product at the moment and this food for thought will certainly help this process along.
    Thanks again all
    Barney

    • Barney, there are a lot of other materials on Value Propositions in this blog. Click on categories then on Value Propositions. If you would like, I would be glad to send you a copy of my Value Proposition ebook, just email me at dabrock at excellenc.com. It there is anything else we can do to help, please let us know.

      Good luck in your project. Thanks for the comment.

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