Are People Buying What You’re Selling?

August 26, 2011

As a leader, that is. Does your strategic vision sound something like this?

“Our strategy is to develop products that truly fulfill customer needs by exploiting our skills and abilities to the maximum level in order to provide a maximum profit to our shareholders. We will do this with high-quality products that provide a substantial competitive advantage. And while achieving this, we will be supportive of our community and our employees.” (Product Strategy for High-Tech Companies, created from the Dilbert Mission Statement Generator that is sadly no longer available.)

Granted, the example above isn’t from a real company, but elements of these generic statements find their way into a lot of real vision or mission statements. If any of these sound similar to your company, ask yourself this: What do your customers or employees really understand about your company? What is it all about? In other words: What do you stand for, and why aren’t you clearly communicating it?

We all know that you can’t be all things to all people, but the strategic vision above doesn’t provide any guidance or framework to work from; at best, it’s a vision about chasing the dollar. It could almost be a vision statement for pimps and prostitutes who happen to donate to charities. It fails to articulate a commitment to a specific purpose that customers and employees value.

Unless you are a non-profit organization, it is understood that you are in business to make a profit and that you need to satisfy your shareholders. The statement provides other, equally useless “direction.” Does anyone tout that they make “low-quality products,” driving a need to state that you make high-quality products? (The real question is: Are you making the highest-quality products?) How do you plan on achieving “substantial competitive advantage”? (Customer service, price, some other dimension?) Finally, in what ways do you plan to “be supportive of our community and our employees”?

Employees are motivated by being a part of something important, that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. Customers want services and products that provide value to them, and in order for them to evaluate that value they need to understand what you offer in context with their needs and priorities. And in today’s highly competitive world, they need something more.

Simon Sinek sums this up as having an organizational purpose that goes beyond “filling a need” with a product or service. I wrote about Simon Sinek’s great TED talk in my post, People Don't Buy What You Do..., with his talk embedded in the post, I urge you to listen to what he has to say.

If you listen to Simon’s talk, you’ll note that there is an emotional component involved. That’s the key differentiator. The goal, as Simon puts it, “… is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

Naturally, you can’t run an organization by belief alone. An organization needs concrete goals and objectives; it needs to measure how well it is progressing towards meeting its vision. And that is where mission statements and vision statements come into play. (Opinions vary on the definitions of mission statements and vision statements, but I’ll stick to one approach here.)

A mission statement is designed to be internally-facing, defining an organization’s purpose and primary objectives along with key measures. A vision statement also defines an organization’s purpose, but does so by incorporating Simon Sinek’s notion of the organization’s belief, articulating the organization’s values versus measures. A vision statement contains more emotional content than a mission statement and is a longer-term view that describes how an organization contributes to the world.

Mind Tools has an excellent post on the subject of Mission Statements and Vision Statements, including some quick steps in creating both. To give you a flavor of the differences between a mission statement and a vision statement, I’ll quote Mind Tools’ Farm Fresh Produce example:

The mission of Farm Fresh Produce is:

“To become the number one produce store in Main Street by selling the highest quality, freshest farm produce, from farm to customer in under 24 hours on 75% of our range and with 98% customer satisfaction.”

The vision of Farm Fresh Produce is:

“We help the families of Main Town live happier and healthier lives by providing the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious local produce: From local farms to your table in under 24 hours.”

The vision isn’t necessarily grand, but it does paint a compelling picture of townspeople living better lives – or at least having the possibility of living a better life – because of Farm Fresh Produce’s contribution. Not only that, but people working for the company have enough to work with to consider how they can participate in realizing the vision, including a few key metrics to measure their efforts against.

The same core message is contained in both, but articulated in two distinctly different ways to satisfy different audiences with different needs. It’s easy to see what Farm Fresh Produces values and believes. It’s also readily apparent how it defines success, a sharp contrast compared to the vague vision statement at the beginning of this post. It takes a lot of effort to reach this succinct level of clarity, but consider the benefits it will provide in attracting and retaining customers and employees.



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