In the introduction to his famous account of the 1929 stock market crash, John Kenneth Galbraith illustrates a fascinating and Shakespearean element of human nature:
“Always when markets are in trouble, the phrases are the same: ‘The economic situation is fundamentally sound’ or simply ‘The fundamentals are good.’”
But “all who hear these words,” he warns, “should know that something is wrong.”
Isn’t it often true that when someone—whether a government official or a friend—is too eager to tell us what should have been assumed, we doubt them?
Whether one doth protest too much, or simply reassure us of something we hadn’t yet been worried about, positive assertions of previous assumptions typically backfire.
And this is one of the easiest market positioning traps to fall into.
We may pride ourselves on our hard work, our diligent efforts, our earnest reliability, and our impeccable honesty. But we’ve still got to focus our position around something else because quality, honesty, and reliability were assumed.
It’s a devilish trap because it’s so natural to want to be known for these simple virtues. But, true or not, everyone claims to be good at what they do. Staking our position around something assumed of everyone in our industry just won’t work.
Roger Martin, in fact, once provided a fairly blunt test to figure out whether our position is unconsciously drifting toward the industry assumptions. He says we need to determine “whether or not the opposite...is stupid on its face.” For instance, “the opposite of the choice to be customer-centric is to ignore customers entirely, which is stupid on its face.”
If our position does not allow for an opposing position that is right for someone (just not our ideal clients), we haven’t made a real choice yet.
Instead, we need to look at the real and credible alternatives people could choose from—including non-consumption entirely—and stake our position around our particular way of helping them that our very best clients would particularly appreciate and value.
It will be our style, our focus, our perspective, our philosophy, or our specific implementation that sets us apart, and positions us in opposition to those other options.
A web designer, for instance, can’t make “great design” their market position any more than a bookkeeper can make “good with numbers” theirs. That was assumed, and the opposite is unviable, so extra claims of quality would only plant doubt. Exceptional industry understanding, a specific process, or a preferred style, however, all admit acceptable opposites:
- Deep industry specialization is opposed to a generalist approach—and both have their merits for certain clients.
- A unique process can be opposed to the traditional way of working—and both may get excellent results, but either could be preferred by different customer sets.
- And a particular style is opposed to myriad other approaches—but our best clients will gravitate toward ours.
And as Martin points out in Playing to Win, if you’ve made the right choices, there should be “customers who absolutely adore you, and noncustomers who can’t see why anybody would buy from you.
“This means you have been choiceful.”
Claiming to be the best, the most honest, or the most reliable are not true choices, because they don’t present the client with real alternatives.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t be known for our quality, reliability, or honesty. Only that we need a clearer, more focused position to achieve it:
- If you want to be known for quality, you could create a position around your preferred style and approach that’s unique to you, demonstrating that you’re the very best at something a particular client loves the most.
- If you want to be known for reliability, you can stake your position around your precise process that keeps you on target and on time. That allows for different processes or priorities that clients can choose from.
- And if you want to be known for honesty in an industry rife with unscrupulous businesses, you could stake your position around your high work standards, your earned credentials, and your industry certifications. That allows the wrong client to select a looser process from someone else if they don’t really value your rigor.
When we make choices, we let our customers make choices, too.
And that allows them to select us because we’re the very best for them and because we reliably deliver what they value most. And they’ll appreciate our honesty and candor because we happily tell them when we’re not the right fit.
When we tell people what should be assumed, they doubt.
But when we tell them what we do, why we do it, and the specific approach we take to getting it done, they’re able to see that we might just be the very best after all.
For them in particular.