To Thine Own Self Be True: Why you really need a true value proposition

True or false

Everyone always talks about the rational and immediate term reasons why you need a value proposition, such as: it will improve your sales; it will make it easier for customers to buy from you; it speeds up the sales process and leads to greater profitability. But there are also deeper and subtler reasons which have major implications for the heart of your business. As a psychologist, I am keenly aware of how psychological aspects of value impact people at work and also businesses as a whole.

Feeling stuck?
How do you know when your value proposition isn’t working?  An obvious way is when you’re losing sales and prospects have stopped calling, but we often find a deeper sense within companies that something is wrong – you can just feel it.  There is a sense of the organisation being ‘stuck’.  We often hear phrases like, “we try this and we try that but nothing is working” or, “we’ve hit the wall and we don’t know what to do next”.

Your value proposition must be a reflection of what your customers expect and want from you married with what you want and are capable of delivering to them – your capabilities. Anything less than this becomes, at best, just marketing spin and, at worst, a sticking plaster to cover up poor capabilities.

Usually, what we find is that the issue is a disconnect somewhere in the value chain that’s being patched over, often by marketing spin.  The organisation’s value proposition therefore isn’t ‘real’.  Everyone involved – internally and externally – instinctively knows that true value isn’t being delivered or received. It’s like the whole business is wearing a mask.  This unreal or untrue value proposition devalues who you are as a business and what value you can truly bring to your people, your customers and the wider society.

I’m not suggesting that being ‘untrue’ is a planned or even a conscious state.  For most organisations it just occurs happens over time until a tipping point is reached – sales decline, customer satisfaction gets worse, profits lag, or there is a major crisis.  Also, not having a ‘true’ value proposition causes a constant tension inside the business. It’s what psychologists call an impasse, the tension between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’. That tension leads to general malaise and unhappiness with good people walking out of the door.

What stage are you stuck at?
Why do companies find it so difficult to find their true value proposition?  It’s because people and organisations get stuck at different stages of the discovery process.

In his book about psychological impasse, ‘Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths’, Timothy Butler writes about 6 phases in the impasse process. Generally there’s a movement and a pattern that the impasse follows, and it’s helpful to recognize where you are:

1. The problem or crisis
The first phase is the arrival of a crisis. Each person’s first response is to keep on working, trying even harder to make a difference.

2. It’s my fault – It’s your fault
Phase 2 is a deepening of the crisis. We realize that our old ways are not working and we’re stuck.  Old doubts emerge and your inner critic gets louder, “We never really were on top of that and now it’s really showing up”.

3. Our way isn’t working
We begin to face the situation with new eyes and new ears, ask what is happening, and attend to our current experience.

4. Becoming more open
We begin to listen better and to be open to a new type of information. We are pushed to the edge of our rational, more purely analytic ways of understanding, and we begin to appreciate complexity in the business – we are forced to go deeper.

5. Becoming aware
There is a deepening insight into our familiar patterns. This phase happens over time. There are patterns to the things we like about the world as people and as a business, the things we value. This is about the business becoming more self-aware.

6. Taking action
The sixth and final phase requires taking action. The impasse experience does not become real until we actually do something about it. We schedule that meeting we’ve been thinking about for 2 years but never done. We do something that shows everyone else and ourselves that we’ve gone through the impasse; it’s been a real experience, and now we can act based on what we’ve learned.

What to do next
Recognise the signs of organisational impasse and start working on your true value proposition. Your value proposition must reflect the true nature of your business, your people, your offerings, your customer base, your capabilities and your vision and aspiration for the business and not false marketing messages that have been created to try to represent what you wish you were as a business.

To deceive yourself as a business, albeit subconsciously, is often easier than deceiving other people. It is also much harder to see the failings and the falsehoods. This may explain why customers are often much better at articulating an organisation’s value proposition than the organisation itself. If you are “stuck” then try asking your clients or customers why they buy from you, or why they stopped buying from you might be a great place to start. 

Shakespeare’s words spoken by Polonius in Hamlet are as true today as they ever were:

To thine own self be true,
and it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man