A number of years ago, I was prospecting. It was a mid-sized company. I had a very good referral to the CEO. In researching the company, I discovered some fairly big risks to their growth. I also discovered some opportunities they were missing in addressing certain part of their market. I prepared for the meeting with the CEO. My goal was to discuss their priorities and strategies, to use these risks and opportunities as potential discussion points to stimulate the discussion and to explore things that our firm could do to help them grow.
I met with the CEO, we started discussing a number of things about their business strategies, challenges, and goals. I posed some questions about the opportunities I thought the were missing. The CEO was intrigued by the discussion, we went longer than the allotted time. Toward the end of the discussion, we came to the conclusion, that while the opportunities I had presented were interesting, the CEO felt they had better opportunities in other areas. I had to agree, based on their priorities and capabilities, that was the right choice.
I was starting to feel a little disappointed, I had built my strategy to work with them around these provocative ideas. While we had a great discussion, it was clear that it would be wrong to go further. Then the CEO said something really interesting to me. He said, “Dave, it’s rare that I have conversations like this. It’s really important to me and to our company. Even though the ideas we discussed don’t make sense now, I’m certain you can help us with the issues we are struggling with right now. I’d really like you to help us on these issues, perhaps we can later work on some of the intriguing ideas you presented. Would you be willing to consult with us?”
The CEO’s comments blew me away. I had come to him with some provocative ideas, but they turned out to be wrong for them—at least at that moment in time. But the CEO still wanted to hire me to help his team on some other ideas. I was all wrong, but I got the gig!
A few weeks later, I learned more. I was starting the project and meeting with the EVP of Sales. He started the meeting by saying, “Dave, I’m really excited to be meeting with you and have helping us with this project. Our CEO has been talking about you constantly since your meeting.” I was a little embarrassed, I replied, “To be honest, I’m a little surprised to be here. When we met, it turned out I was completely off target on some of the ideas I presented.”
He laughed and said, “Ken (the CEO) didn’t care about that, he said he had never had a discussion like the one with you. He said you clearly understood us, our industry, and our challenges. He said he really liked the way you think, he liked your perspective you had and that you helped him look at things differently. He knows we need help and is absolutely convinced that you can help us think differentely and implement the new strategies we are considering.”
We struggle with ideas about how to help improve our customers businesses, how to help them achieve things they had never imagined. We struggle with “what’s that killer idea?”
The experience above and a number of others have taught me something important. It’s great to have a killer idea the customer immediately embraces and wants to go forward with. But more often the killer idea is not what the customer buys. It turns out what’s more important is the conversation and using the conversation to jointly discover opportunities to help them move forward. The ability to focus on the customer’s business, to discuss ideas as peers, rather than suppliers, the ability to partner with the customer in moving forward is the real value we bring and what the customer is looking for.
Our customers are struggling in growing their businesses, improving their operations, identifying and addressing new opportunities. They need help in doing this, they need partners with insight, ideas, and solutions. Our provocative ideas are just the starting point–perhaps they’re the entrance fee. What we really want is to engage the customer in a conversation, to engage in a process of discovery about what they want to do, what our ideas are, and how we might help them attain their goals. Ultimately, I think it is rare that we bring that slam dunk idea the customer buys. I think what they really buy is our ability to help them.
Have you ever had a similar experience?