I attended the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Technology Showcase recently to hear presentations from a number of mid-market companies and mingle with the investor/finance/M&A crowd. Because I help my clients strategize on how to sell to financial executives, it is important for me to understand the way they think and prioritize—and I gained some great insights.

But one of the most striking things I observed and heard was when I ran into senior business development people from three different accounting firms—regional to national in scope. We exchanged the usual “how’s it going” pleasantries and caught up in general.

There’s Nothing New Under the Sun

What was astounding to me was each person’s take on the current market environment: “Our competitors are dropping their shorts,” one said, meaning they are grabbing market share by lowering their pricing. Another echoed those sentiments. The third talked about feeling a lack of marketing support—not just the usual requests for more awareness and more leads, but more so the fact that they don’t really have anything distinct or differentiated to sell. They weren’t talking about something new at the “pixel layer”—a new elevator pitch, tagline or web site. What they want is to be able to offer something new in their firms’ services, the way they do business. Something new that delivers value above and beyond the usual “same old, same old.”

At some level, I get that—they’re accounting firms. Great business model, everyone needs one. It’s worked for decades. But to me, it’s crazy. Why send your business development folks into battle unarmed—without a unique value proposition that the other firms haven’t thought of.

How Do You Differentiate At A Substantive Level?

Differentiating your service in a way that is meaningful and valuable to customers starts with you actually asking your customers what they want. This sounds simple—almost elementary. But not nearly enough companies do it.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of my clients’ customers over the years, CEOs, CFO, COOs, CIOs and CMOs, to help my clients understand their customers Elevator Rant—what they are thinking about on the elevator when my client isn’t around. And I can tell you that there is always a way to add value in a differentiated way. Once you start asking the right questions in the right context there is always gold in their responses—sometimes useful gold nuggets, sometimes game changing gold bricks. It just takes a little experience and synthesis to extract the insights.

Then comes the hard part: You have to have the desire or courage (sometimes out of necessity in a business that has plateaued or fallen behind its peers) to use the insights to address what those customers say.

Why Isn’t Anybody Listening?

But in my experience, very few companies ask their customers what they can do better or differently. Think about it…when’s the last time you as a business leader:

Talked to your customers when you are not trying to sell them something or solve a problem?
Used customer insights to change or improve key aspects of the customer experience. That could mean product features. That could mean service enhancements. It could be service delivery or customer support.
You cannot tell me that there isn’t away for those accounting firm business development people to sell more if they were armed with a newer or different version of the “same old” services—something that makes the prospect’s eyebrows go up in a way that says, “I didn’t know you could do that,” or “I’ve never heard of anyone doing it that way.” And when you offer something of value that others’ don’t or can’t, you won’t have to “drop your shorts” to win business.

Remember—Those Customer Insights Are There For The Asking

The information you want is lurking around the inner recesses of your customers’ minds. It’s your job to commit to asking them the right questions, prioritizing the insights and addressing their input head on.

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