My son and I recently spent time at an Indian Guides campout at a YMCA camp in Michigan. We were exploring in the woods when we heard these funny sounds: “Tink!”, “clang!”, “bang!”, “Yes!”, “Aw, I just missed it!”, “Watch this!” and “Got it!”  As we moved toward the noise, we saw a group of boys and their dads bending down, standing up and throwing things.  A closer look showed us that we had found the “Rock Range,” a structure on a riverbed of rocks from which stop signs, pie tins, baking sheets and old hubcaps dangled from two rusted swing sets.  The objective: throw rocks until you hit your target or your arm gives out!

Flash back to you childhood and recall the simple pleasures you enjoyed. Perhaps you think about swimming in a lake, riding your bike or playing a pick-up game of baseball.  For me, it was throwing rocks (skipping them across the water or breaking glass). Obviously, I was not alone in my passion because the boys and dads at the Rock Range were savoring each toss and competing against each other to see who could hit the target and make the loudest noise first.

I love moments when I come across a brilliant idea that perfectly captures a deep desire or intrinsic need. First, the idea may meet an intrinsic need I may not of even been in touch with. Second, I savor the creativity, emotional intelligence and understanding that others have about what really makes people tick. The Rock Range got me thinking about what a gift this understanding is and how often professional services firms over-think answers to clients’ problems.

When I help firms set marketing strategy, we often do an exercise called the “Issue-to-Solution Matrix.”  It is a powerful drill that helps practice leaders understand what makes their clients tick, how the practice’s solutions meet clients’ needs and what are the benefits of the solutions that drive value.  Almost every time I do the exercise, there is a predictable pattern to the confab.

The questions begin with:

  • Who is our primary buyer?
  • How is his/her performance measured?
  • Who influences his/her success?  How?
  • How does our buyer think about _______?  Why?
  • What words does he/she use to talk about _______?

The group gets stuck on features and firm capabilities. “We have the most data.” “We were the first to market.” “Our people are the best.” “We have a proprietary (fill in the blank.)”  When asked, “Why is this important to our client?” the group begins to articulate benefits. Things like cost savings, revenue growth, reduced risk and increased employee productivity are very popular. But, these are still not the answer. The answer is always unspoken, deeper and more meaningful.  The intrinsic need is normally overcoming a fear, reducing a personal risk, achieving an ambition or avoiding rejection.  How many times have you heard a client share those vulnerabilities?  I suspect very few. (If you doubt what I am saying, read The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, it offers insight into the insecurities and groupthink of CEOs around the world.)

Takeaway

What was so cool about the Rock Range is that it met an intrinsic need in a simple and safe way. First, there was an almost endless supply of rocks—and good rocks.  No time wasted looking for the “perfect” rock. Second, the range was set up in a way that was perfectly safe. Throw to your heart’s content. Nothing is going to get broken. There were no lines, no tickets and no supervision—just rocks. Walk right up and start throwing.

Often, your clients’ solution is simple and straightforward.  Talk of data, quality, people, etc. falls on deaf ears. I don’t know anyone who pays for data. Insights yes; data no.  But firms keep talking about features that are meaningless.  Stop complicating stuff.  Just help your clients throw rocks and hit their targets. Most important, meet the intrinsic need they didn’t articulate.

Be prudent.

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