I recently read The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday. There’s an interesting story about George Clooney’s early days as an actor:
George Clooney spent his first years in Hollywood getting rejected at auditions. He wanted the producers and directors to like him, but they didn’t and it hurt and he blamed the system for not seeing how good he was.
Everything changed for Clooney when he tried a new perspective. He realized that casting is an obstacle for producers, too— they need to find somebody, and they’re all hoping that the next person to walk in the room is the right somebody. Auditions were a chance to solve their problem, not his. From Clooney’s new perspective, he was that solution. He wasn’t going to be someone groveling for a shot. He was someone with something special to offer. He was the answer to their prayers, not the other way around. That was what he began projecting in his auditions— not exclusively his acting skills but that he was the man for the job. That he understood what the casting director and producers were looking for in a specific role and that he would deliver it in each and every situation, in preproduction, on camera, and during promotion.
Instead of focusing on his needs he paid attention to the needs he could meet.
That’s a lesson I have to learn over and over again. Most of the work we do is creative. We’re building new things. We’re trying to innovate. And when we do something new my natural tendency is to show off. I’m still a ten-year old boy standing in front of the class and telling everyone about the cool new thing. I want oohs and ahhs. It’s an ego trip.
That pride in our work is important but it often misses the point for the audience. Each person listening wants to know how the new thing solves their problem. Take the pricing we are doing at Vendo, for example. It’s incredibly complex. That’s part of why its fun. We’ve discovered amazing things about consumer demand at micro-levels. Everyone working on the project is stoked.
How does it connect with the customer’s need? Well, there are a few steps to making that connection. First, we have to understand what matters to people selling things online. It turns out their #1 concern is competing for traffic. To do that they need to lift their sales and their margins. Our pricing helps lift sales and margins. That’s the need we meet. That’s what matters to our customers. The data science tools we built to get those gains are cool…to us. They move us closer to our goal of revolutionizing our industry. But that’s our goal. Not our customer’s goal.
Take Uber, for example. They want to revolutionize transportation. Good for them. I’m a customer of theirs. What do I want? To press a button and have a car arrive. I want efficiency. Our needs are very, very different. Uber is trying to meet the needs of its team (revolution) and its customers (efficiency). I’m vaguely interested in their goal of revolutionizing transportation. But it’s not the basis of our relationship and I don’t want to get lots of emails about it.
What matters to our customers is the effect of our tools on their business. So, in the pricing example, we are developing specific reporting to make the lift in sales and margins very clear. Internally we can see what is happening by taking dozens of different views of the results, zooming in and out, and changing perspectives. Like Uber, we have the whole picture. Our tools meet our internal needs.
Our customers are focused on competing for traffic. If they can see more sales and higher margins then they can compete better. That’s the need we meet for them. Their needs are very different from ours. Investing time and resources to help our partners see that we are meeting their needs pays off.
Just a subtle shift helps us see things better from their point of view. Attempting to dazzle without making that solid connection to their needs just leads to getting passed over, ignored, like George Clooney and his awesome hair.