Choose Your Value Proposition Words Carefully

by | Brand Strategy, Marketing Strategy

Professional services attract some of the best and brightest people in business.

We matriculate to top schools and graduate at the top of our classes. We are star athletes, cheerleaders, debaters, musicians, student council members, and more. We are competitive, driven to succeed, and expect to achieve. We work in high rises, travel the globe, and live in affluent communities.  After a couple of years working, we begin to think our lives and our work are normal and commonplace.

They aren’t.

A client recently asked me to articulate Prudent Pedal’s value proposition so he could communicate it as I would to prospects in his professional services network.

I told him, “I help professional services firms overcome their inherent dysfunction to accelerate growth and build legacies.” He was dumbfounded that I had used the word “dysfunction” in a public statement that a potential client would consume. He asked, “Why not use inefficient, ineffective or underperforming?” He believes that calling a firm “dysfunctional” is akin to telling new parents that their baby is ugly. You simply don’t do it. It’s impolite, negative, confrontational, and unnecessary. This client is also a friend, so he knows me pretty well. He believes that “dysfunctional” is a perilous, if not suicidal, choice of words. He, like others who have bristled over my using “prudent” in my firm’s name, was trying to be helpful.

My choice of the word “dysfunctional,” like “prudent”, was very deliberate.

The point of a value proposition is to communicate YOUR value to a prospect.

There are thousands of self-proclaimed leading, trusted, and global firms that are committed to delivering quality strategy, design, branding, accounting, law, tax, engineering, and advisory services that help resolve complex issues and uncover opportunities. They all “understand” clients. They all look and sound the same, too, because they are the same. The point is to break through the noise. The point is to be different.

How many firms have the courage to stand out by speaking about the virtue of prudence and taking on the dysfunctional machine?


Is using dysfunctional risky? Yes, but stepping out of the crowd first always is. I’m willing to take that risk because I have experiences that my friend doesn’t.

“Dysfunctional” is the correct word for me to use in my value proposition for several reasons.

First, it reflects what I have witnessed in my 20 years of immersion in accounting, HR, financial advisory, and consulting firms. I spent the first decade of my career outside of professional services in software sales, IT, operations, and purchasing. I joined Andersen as a family business consultant after completing my MBA.

Dysfunction is the elephant in the meeting rooms of most professional services firms. I know this because every firm I visit has its particular moniker for the dysfunction. Some referred to it as “a culture of optionality” or “a caste system.” A popular and socially acceptable name is “up-or-out.” If you prefer a few with a little more testosterone, how about “survival of the fittest” or “We eat our young”? One of my favorites is “grin f- – king,” an expression that describes the moment when you are smiled at as someone leaves the room in anticipation of putting you out of commission. I use the “BS of PS.” There are many others. The dysfunction is real and, if not acknowledge and addressed, it slows growth and damages a firm’s, morale, reputation, and legacy.

Webster defines dysfunction as:

  1. impaired or abnormal functioning
  2. abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group.


Many people believe that “dysfunctional” is reserved solely for abusive or alcoholic family systems. However, the word refers to other systems and describes underdeveloped interpersonal behavior that is exacerbated by group dynamics. Every organization has some dysfunction—not just professional services firms. Professional services firms just have their own particular abnormalities.

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Second, my friend demonstrates that it gets one’s attention and elicits an emotional reaction. Fantastic! Just what I was going for. Argue with me; agree with me, but let’s talk about it.

Third, no other marketing firm uses it. If you know one, please let me know. I will recruit them or buy them.

Fourth, I have chosen to work with leaders who have chosen the difficult work of introspection and view their role as “stewarding” their firm’s legacy. They want a smarter approach to growth and a more meaningful existence than just the cold, soulless pursuit of profit.




Finally, and most importantly, when I use the word around my ideal clients, they nod in hearty agreement.  Some of the monikers above come from my best clients.


The truth of the matter is that I will never convince someone that the world of professional services can be dysfunctional. They believe that already or they do not. In addition, I will never make Dana Carvey fans “unhear” him impersonating President H.W. Bush saying, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent” when they hear the word “prudent.” Why would I want to? My job is not to convince anyone of anything.

My job is to be visible and present in a marketplace of people that wish professional firms were more humane, offered a more relevant existence than utilization, and would allow them to have a greater impact in the world than a PowerPoint deck.

What value do you offer?


Be prudent.


About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

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