The birthday gift 


A customer once told me a story from his life that beautifully illustrates how understanding what other people value gives you the opportunity to enrich their lives.
Throughout human history, stories have served as vessels for knowledge. So when I heard this one, I filed it away in my mind knowing it illustrated an important point about life and business.

The customer who told me this story has three kids. In the story, one of the kids was having a birthday coming up. Her siblings were hard at work trying to figure out what she wanted for her birthday. With all the toys of today, the options are endless.

Her older sister, obviously a future entrepreneur, marketer or pricing specialist, came up with the perfect gift. It was a gift that didn’t cost her anything. It only took her ten minutes or so to make it. It was small enough to fit on a piece of paper, yet lasted an entire year.

Can you guess what the gift was?

The gift was allowing her sister to always ride shotgun for an entire year.

Her younger sister thought it was one of the best gifts she received that birthday.

From my perspective, the older sister showed an intuitive understanding of what her sister valued. You might argue it’s easy to know what your family members value. We live with them, after all. But I bet very few brothers or sisters would have the insight and empathy to come up with a gift like this.

Not only that, it’s also a gift that didn’t cost the older sister anything – at least not anything material. That’s a thought worth paying attention to in our day-to-day work. What is valuable to other people may not necessarily be expensive or even valuable to us. Value is subjective and we’ll most likely misestimate the value of things we possess, control or can offer to other people.

That aspect of this story isn’t rare. I recently heard a story on the “Art of Value” podcast where a legal firm gave a customer more value by doing less work. In this case, the customer preferred a phone call over a written memo.

They key to this is of course knowing what your customers value. The only way you can know what your customers value is by listening to them and being honestly interested in them. Which leads us back to the importance of being interested, not interesting.

A great way to start a conversation about what people value is to ask genuine questions. Preferably as early as possible. Be prepared to be honest, personal and even vulnerable. I often clearly admit to customers if there’s something they need that I’m not particularly good at. If so, I recommend working with others for those things and I will also point them in the right direction.

I know this goes against a lot of the stuff we’ve been taught about selling and convincing prospects of our expertise, “fake it till you make it” and such. Those ideas never resonated well with me. I always felt more comfortable when I could be my genuine myself around people, customers or colleagues. Once you’ve established a relationship on a foundation like this and distrust is out of the way, everything will run so much smoother.

Starting a conversation about these topics with a customer can be hard. Here are some suggestions for questions you can try to start a genuine conversation:
  • What do you expect from us?
  • Which of our company’s offerings is of the highest value to you?
  • What is your current pain (or what keeps you up at night)?
  • If price were not an issue, what role would you want us to play in your business?
  • What are the service standards you would like for us to provide you?
  • What are your fears when it comes to hiring us or a company like ours?
  • What can we do to address concerns or fears you might have?
  • Why are you changing supplier? What did you not like about your former supplier that you do not want us to repeat?
  • How important is rapid response on questions? What do you consider rapid response?
  • How do you suggest we best learn about your business so we can be more proactive in helping you maximize your business success?
  • What will the success of this project look like?

These questions were inspired by ones found in the book “Implementing Value Pricing” by Ronald J. Baker.
Jakob Persson

Jakob Persson

Founder of Leancept and works as advisor to agencies, freelancers and startups. He is also the founder of the client relationship nurturing tool Elately (formerly Bondsai):