Did someone move your cheese?

The question is inspired by a book; Who Moved My Cheese, written by Dr. Spencer Johnson first published in 1999.

The book tells an amusing story of four mice who live in a maze and in a particular part of the maze there is a permanent supply of cheese so life is good and easy.  Unfortunately a day arrives when the cheese isn’t there and the book goes on to illustrate different reactions to, and strategies to deal with, this state of imposed change.  Cheese is a metaphor for anything that we might want or need and in this article I explore two areas where many businesses are suffering imposed change to; the way they define and present their propositions and the way they take those propositions to market.

In the book, the mice handle the unexpected change in different ways and basically two of them stubbornly keep returning to the same place hoping the cheese will be there** while the other two, aptly named Sniff and Scurry, immediately go looking elsewhere.

** “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done
you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got” comes to mind.
W. L. Bateman

The message for any business; you must be in a permanent state of anticipation, ready and willing to adapt and ready to quickly embrace change as soon as the need is foreseen.

So where can the two heroes Sniff & Scurry help in this context?mouse in maze hunting cheese

Sniff out your real proposition

Your proposition is the combination of products, services and also your mode of operation ** (how you do what you do) that creates your unique proposition.  This is what you provide that customers can buy to address the needs and wants that they wish to satisfy.

**We were asked to undertake a review of customer satisfaction for an organisation where we were already working.  One important outcome was that customers liked them having a human, UK based, service desk that worked extended hours and was able to act to rapidly dispatch vital parts.  The organisation had been contemplating replacing the human service desk with an automated one – phew; lucky escape!

A reasonable question to ask is why, if the proposition was good in the recent past, has it become less attractive?  It is common that this happens and the main reasons are:

  • The proposition should clearly demonstrate your ability to satisfy customer needs and wants by delivering a positive means to achieve the required change. If these needs have changed then your proposition will no longer look like a good match. Someone may have “moved your customers’ cheese”!
  • You need to undertake research to understand what current needs/wants actually are and build this into you account management and new business selling processes.
  • Consider the price, cost and value of your proposition. Your price may look high compared to your competitors’, especially new market entrants, and you need to ensure the presentation of your proposition focuses on cost and value. The price charged by a competitor may be lower than yours but the total cost of ownership may be higher (for example the total cost of ownership for a cheap air fare is the ticket price plus all the extras they require you to pay); so don’t be shy, it is your job to demonstrate this to ensure the customer understands the full value they will gain from buying your solution.
  • A key part of the previous step is actually recognising and accepting your weaknesses – the proposition scope; what you say you can do, must be what you can actually do not what you wish you could do. If that scope leaves you vulnerable to competition you must act to address it otherwise your cheese will be moved!
  • It is common that suppliers consider their proposition to be attractive to certain vertical markets and if this is genuinely true then it is a valuable asset to have. However, it is all too easy to be seduced into believing you have a vertical offering, because you have a cluster of customers in the same type of business. The majority of businesses have horizontal offerings and the reason for the apparent vertical capability is typically based on an outbound marketing and sales focus on particular market sectors. This leads to a self-fulfilling belief which rarely stands up to scrutiny when a customer is really in need of a supplier with vertical business knowledge. This also means the supplier is limiting the breadth and depth of the market they can genuinely service.
  • When presenting your proposition avoid the trap of telling people what you do – tell them what they will get; paint the picture, help them visualise and understand what the end result will look and feel like. A common reaction to falling sales is for the supplier to start ‘shouting’ at prospects saying how wonderful they are but this usually falls on deaf ears. This reaction is often accompanied by internal conversations along the lines of “they (as in customers) just don’t get it” when it is actually the supplier that doesn’t get it.

In an apparent contradiction to what I have just said you should never lose sight of the fact that you might just have something that is genuinely new that people will want once they realise they have the need that you satisfy. When the Walkman and the tablet computer were first launched there was to some extent a leap of faith that people would want to use them. These products were creating the desire rather than just responding to it.

With any disruptive solution there will be a shortage of supporting information so the launching of such a proposition comes with a high risk of failure and this can be, and usually is, a costly diversion so; approach with caution!
Don’t kid yourself; be rigorous, do all you can to explore the potential but don’t get wrapped up in over ambitious self-belief, but having taken all these doses of cold water you might just have something that no one else has thought of.

Scurry off to your market

Your suspects’ profile will define things such as; business activities, processes and style, size, location and all other factors that together represent the type of organisation you think will be really attracted to your proposition and that you will be able to service successfully. This is how you separate the wheat from the chaff for the effective use of your resources.

Research and search for potential customers based on the profile and checklist you created. Bear in mind whether you have a truly horizontal or vertical offering and market – don’t be seduced into the wrong direction.

Consider the many options available to marketeers and decide on the right mix of marketing options to match the chosen market and your proposition.

In parallel with getting the marketing mix right you need to decide how you will handle all those nice warm leads. How are you going to turn them into customers providing you with profitable revenue growth? In short you need to decide how you will sell your proposition, which may vary to suit each prospect. Consider the tools and techniques you will need to use:

  • Techniques such as solution or consultative selling are very adaptable and often prove to be the most suitable approach.
  • Is your market mature and does it understand its own problems or might your sales people need to ‘educate’ prospects as to the range of solutions that are available?
  • If your customer has had their cheese moved they may have developed some prejudices about the correct solution to their needs/wants in which case your sales strategy must be robust enough to challenge entrenched positions and provide enlightenment. A word of caution; it may be that the customer has developed beliefs about their need and the potential solutions through contact with other suppliers so be careful not to appear to be rubbishing your competitors – focus on your positives not others’ negatives.
  • When the evolution of propositions and requirements start to move along different paths the engagement process often focuses on price which is a game with no winners. You need to ensure your marketing and sales thrust is based on Value and RoI not just the price.

In Summary

If you feel your cheese has been moved, and it came as a surprise, you need to review the way you are monitoring your business, your market and your customers. You must ensure your business management systems and processes provide you with pertinent leading indicators; it is much less painful to dodge the pothole than to repair the tyre after you’ve hit it.

Most of this article has focused on doing things systematically which is generally the safest route to success but you should also allow and facilitate free thinking as part of your business review and planning process.

Free your mind, break with convention, think the impossible and it might just become possible and sometimes the audacious land grab can work delivering a great jump in performance and results.

Having decided what customers need (or will desire) and what you are able to supply, you now have a guide that will help you build a profile and checklist to identify your likely ‘suspects’ and indicate how and where to find them.