How To Be

How To Be Outstanding

"Adjective 1. Exceptionally good: clearly noticeable". Are you outstanding? Is the business you are running outstanding? Is what you do or what your business does exceptionally good and clearly noticeable? And how do you know if you are or it is?

Can you answer the question, in one simple sentence, of why your business exists? If you can't, then it is highly unlikely that anybody outside of your business (or family) is going to describe your enterprise as "exceptionally good and clearly noticeable".

Good enough is good enough, isn't it? No it isn't. In a world in which there is an oversupply of almost everything and in which success depends entirely on isolating highly specific areas of demand and serving them exclusively, good enough just isn't good enough. If you want to win - and you should want to, because the chances of survival off the winners' podium are slim - then you have to be outstanding, which means, above all, clearly noticeable.

What does 'clearly noticeable' mean? It means standing out from the crowd of competitors. It means being highly focused and specialised. It sharper instead of broader; specific instead of general and deeper instead of superficial. Above all it means being able to answer the question "Which pressing problem are you and your organisation set up to solve for precisely which clientele, exactly?"

Most businesses and business owners I encounter can't answer that question with anyhthing like the degree of precision necessary to qualify them for an 'outstanding' label. Many entrepreneurs and business owners actually become quite angry when I ask that question, particularly when I insist on them giving me a precise answer. And when I scan through their websites and read their marketing literature or even their product or service brochures, I rarely find enough information to be able to answer that question myself.

Daniel Pink, in his excellent book "To Sell is Human" notes that the whole process of selling has changed dramatically over the past 10 years and that prospective customers have already researched and compared offerings long before they actually make contact to their prospective suppliers. They are well informed, have screened the market place, have made price comparisons and have already formed opinions and sympathies with certain suppliers before they ever talk to a sales representative or to a senior figure in the business. Who will potential customers look for when they scan the field? Who will they notice?

If you have designed your company to focus on solving a specific, important problem for a specific group of customers (defined as all the relevant people for whom that problem is pressing and real) and can clearly articulate that, then, when anybody from that group starts looking for a way to solve that problem, you will be visible to them. They will see you, because you will stand out - you will be outstanding.

The effect of that focus is that people who do not have that specific problem will, of course, not see you, because they will be looking for something else, specific to them. They might have stumbled across you beforehand, whilst they were combing their way through the sea of interchangeable generalists, who all claim to be able to perform whatever the client wants. But probably not.

When you specialise on a problem, when you become proficient in understanding the real needs of the client, hidden behind and under that problem, then you can you truly be exceptionally good and clearly noticeable, where it counts.

Here is an exercise to test your current level of visibility:

  1. Write down in one short sentence the answer to the question "For whom exactly is my business providing a solution to which problem?"
  2. How many of my current (last twelve months) customers do business with me or my company, specifically to solve the problem I have just defined?
  3. How were they dealing with the problem before they came to my business?
  4. What does solving their problem allow them to do, that they couldn't do previously?
  5. Is there a bigger problem behind the problem that I am being asked to solve that is even more important? Can I help solve that problem?

I recently watched a wonderful film with Will Smith and the beautiful Rosaria Dawson as Emily, called Seven Pounds. In the film, Emily is suffering from a chronic heart weakness which has rendered her incapable of continuing to work in her little business offering hand-made card and invitation printing. She has two wonderful old handprinting presses in her garage on which she can produce uniquely special invitations and greetings cards. early on in the narrative she receives a call from a potential customer and as she is too weak to take the commission, she tries to suggest an alternative supplier to the customer, who just hangs up in disappointment. I couldn't help thinking about that exchange, because it illustrated many of the issues relevant to becoming outstanding in the eyes of your customers. That particular customer found Emily because she was outstanding - she had a few unique advantages and was highly specialised in a very small niche area of the card and invitation market. Her machines were old and of high quality and her knowledge of paper and the printing process was equal to her evident love of the process and the product. i would imagine Emily was able to charge a premium price for her handmade cards, certainly more that the Hallmark alternatives.

The customer wanted an exquisite, unique, special and non-standard solution to the problem of inviting her guests to an event, for which, obviously, everything had to be special, even the cards. My presumption is that the underlying need of that customer was aligned to that of most of Emily's customers, namely of having a much bigger project (invitation, event, celebration), which was so important to them that even the cards announcing the invitation, would need to convey that specialness. The card was just one element in an altogether much more important pressing organisational problem that that client was being challenged by. Emily could have easily (if she hadn't been so ill) used the reputation and trust that she already had with this prospective client to explore the other challenges that the customer was facing and gain a deeper into the way in which her little commission was connected to a host of other, even larger challenges. By using her specialist product as a doorway into the client's perspective, she would have been able to discover where the client was truly frightened of failure or concerned with quality issues that would damage her vision of success for the event. Had emily made it her business to do this with all her clients she would have gained great insights into the various motivations, hopes and fears of her customers, just from following the trail back from the simple commission of an invitation to the heart of the project. Through her repeated enquiry she would discover similarities and a hierarchy of concerns (venue, catering, music, technology, organisation, menues, accomodation, flower arrangements, chauffering, staffing, cleaning, post event activities, photographs and a whole host of other activities and services necessary to the success of the event) for which the invitation was simply the first step.

That knowledge alone - based on asking the right questions and seeking to understand her customer's concerns outside of the narrow context of her little order, would have given her the ability to arrange co-operations with other specialists, on whose quality and attention to detail she could rely and pass business on to them. In this way she could, understanding her customers as she would necessarily do, become a gatekeeper for a range of other services and products, delivering business to her trusted associates and receiving additional income in the process as well as bolstering her reputation and expertise.

Everybody in business, in service, in any organisation can become outstanding and clearly noticeable, if they recognise the opportunity they have to understand the problem they are being asked to solve and committing to that focus.