Discussions about what it means to be authentic both in business and in life in general are everywhere at the moment.  Combine this quest for authenticity with the ongoing quest to deliver superior customer value and you have the heart of a current business dilemma: how to provide authentic value to customers.

Everything will line up perfectly when knowing and living the truth becomes more important than looking good.” - Alan Cohen

What is authentic value?

Authenticity is about being congruent between what you say, what you do, what you think, what you feel and what you mean.  This applies equally at a personal level and at a company wide level. 

Think about people you know who say one thing yet do another.  Instinctively you start to trust them less. You’ll certainly be less willing to rely on them in a crisis or for help when you need it.  Many of us who are even slightly intuitive also sense when someone is not being true to themselves, we just ‘know’ it. The same is true for businesses.  We’ve all got examples of a brand promise not being played out in the real customer experience of the product or service being offered.  You’ve only got to look at examples like that of VW and the emissions scandal or the UK's largest mis-selling scandal over payment protection insurance (PPI) which has affected millions of people with $30.3 billion already paid in compensation.

When customers get the value they’re expecting, and more, you are much more likely to keep them because they get what they want and they trust you. There's the additional value this gives you and your company in the huge boost in confidence through knowing clearly what value you deliver to customers and how you deliver it.

Is authentic value important?

So why should we care whether we deliver or portray authentic value to our customers or not?

It actually makes business sense. It’s easier in the longer term. There’s less to control, less to overtly manage and manipulate.  It becomes effortless and natural rather than controlled and forced.  

Now, if you’re transitioning from an older style of management, one that’s more about control and power, then making the transition is going to be harder. It will take concerted planning and tenacity but this behaviour change, when the right approaches are used, can be achieved rapidly and with minimal trauma. This needs to be a whole new blog post in itself.

Another reason why authentic value is important is that those people who are your customers, suppliers and employees who are 36 or younger expect it.  Give up trying to present a perfect façade, it is untrue, unobtainable and, thankfully, a bad thing with this generation. Authenticity wins hands down with this age group as does being a long-term, vision-focused business. Millennials are emotionally savvy and have high levels of self-awareness which means they automatically sense and are repelled by inauthenticity.

And as far as value is concerned, a new extensive Gallup study* has just found that up to 71% of B2B customers would change to a different seller in a heartbeat.  B2B customers don’t feel valued and don’t feel that most companies offer them value. This is a staggeringly high percentage that B2B companies need to sit up and pay attention to.

They conclude, “B2B companies across all industries are at risk of being replaced – not because of their products or prices, but because they are failing their customers.”

How to get it

In talking about value we must focus on stakeholder value and not only customer value.  Why?  Because an organization can’t be truly authentic if it only focuses on one aspect of value, only customers.  Yes, customers are hugely important but if you don’t also consider employee value and supplier value and other key stakeholders then your value will not be authentically congruent.  It will become skewed to ‘only customers’ or ‘only shareholders’. 

Engagement here is key. Engagement with customers and with all stakeholders.  Gone are the days of just good communication.  That doesn’t cut it anymore.  Communication implies that it’s a one-way street – that of you communicating to your external audiences.  Engagement means two-way collaboration, a sharing of the power for mutual benefit and this inherently means you have to be authentic and provide value to each other (co-created value is our rather academic phrase for this).

I just read an article from a well known marketing company that talked about how to write a truly authentic value proposition.  This is so missing the point. (Interestingly this also seems to be a very USA-centric approach, we don’t find this narrow view of value propositions anywhere else. Maybe it’s due to the value proposition tick-box on Salesforce.com?).  You can’t write a value proposition, full stop.  You design a company-wide or portfolio-wide authentic value proposition based on input from all stakeholders.  Only then do you design the engagement strategies and plans for multi-level engagement with all stakeholders and only then do you create sales stories and marketing messages. You’ve also got to fix any operational issues that need fixing, those things that get in the way of delivering the type of customer experience that customers actually value.  So stop talking about writing your value proposition!

You know you’ve got there when what you do inside a company is the same as what you do outside.  You don’t have to have whole departments of people manipulating and managing the brand messages because the brand messages are lived and experienced by customers, suppliers, employees every day. A utopian ideal?  Maybe but certainly one worth striving for if you want to keep and grow good customers and employees.

* Gallup report - “Guide to Customer Centricity: Analytics and Advice for B2B Leaders”