In 1965 Bob Dylan wrote about the a-changing times, and half a century later they haven’t really stopped. Yes, it’s a slightly naff article title, but it’s the ear-worm that I keep coming up with every time I think about my recent work with some of our service business and agency clients.

People can’t stop talking about change; the pace of change, the number of changes, the demand of change. Enterprises, not for profits and agencies are struggling with all of this change, and I can understand why.

Corporate businesses are working so hard on what to do about the vast amounts of change, they don’t have as much headspace for some of the things that used to create lucrative business for agencies – like crafting beautiful messages and epic ad campaigns. It’s no major surprise that organisations like the AAR, traditionally the territory of big spending CMO’s wanting to get the best creative concept for their best selling product, have launched an Innovation Practice. Here they draw on their skills in helping Enterprises navigate the service landscape to find the right innovation partner. It’s not what to communicate that’s the problem, its what to sell in the first place. You can read their launch report here.

Winners & Losers

This shift clearly creates opportunities for consultants like Subsector, but it also means that the other businesses that orbit the corporate world need to change too. So far so good. The problem is…. agencies aren’t that good at change.

I know there are lots of dynamic agencies and service businesses who are constantly trying to innovate in order to better serve the market. They will no doubt do well. The problem is, a lot of agencies struggle to change their business as quick as the customer problem changes. The greater the rate of change, the harder this becomes. In many cases, the customer problem has changed dramatically and the agencies who serve them, have not changed enough. To be honest, a lot of agencies haven’t even spotted the customer problem has changed, by the time they do – it’s a much bigger challenge.

We all know it’s hard to change your business. We watch large corporate organisations fall from grace after genuine market disruption by some clever upstarts who didn’t have the same scale, politics, budget constraints, culture, supply chains and mindsets to battle with. It’s hard to be ahead of the times when your business is built around a set of particular skills that you may or not be able to quickly add to or remove.

The good news is that you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater IF you can get really comfortable with shaping your business around problems to solve, and loosen up your grip on the things you have always done.

Think about problems AND solutions

Recently, I read and shared a nice article recently about solving customer problems when I was thinking about some of the proposition and business model work we’ve been doing recently. I particularly liked the quote “I often think that the person that wins is the person that understands and articulates the problem more so than the person that understands and articulates the solution”. This is a smart way to look of serving customers, I would add that understanding and articulating the problem AND then genuinely having a differentiated solution is the holy grail – but you can only do the latter if you can do the former.

At a time when there is over-supply in the agency space, it becomes even more important to carve out your role in the client’s life. Saying your service is a bit better/more creative/more crafted probably isn’t going to cut it. You have to find a problem you can solve – that no one, or few others cans solve as quickly, easily and effectively as you. The truth is, lots of people are pretty good – and even if you’re better than all of them, you’ll only be able to show that once you get through the door.

I’m of course not saying it’s impossible to compete in the same space and create a successful business. However, succeeding in an undifferentiated and competitive market where everybody broadly sells the same thing means you are much more heavily reliant on things like how much you can spend on marketing, the price of your product, who attends the first meeting, and a great degree of luck. None of these thing are particularly appealing as a business plan. You can do it, but it’s bloody hard.

How do you find your problem to solve?

This is not a masterclass in proposition or business model design, you can always do that with us. But I wanted to share some practical and simple steps to finding a problem to solve.

Simple steps

  1. Interview your clients, regularly. Find out if the problem you solve really still exists for them. How do they describe it? Is is that important to them? What else could they do to solve it? What is their biggest problem and who solves that?
  2. Speak to people you don’t know about their problems. Phone up clients where you lost the pitch. Find out why. What did they buy? Survey prospects. Get them to prioritise the problems you think they have. Evidence from people who do not currently buy from youis priceless – get some in whatever way you can.

If 1 and 2 are really scary, you don’t have time or you don’t think your clients will be honest with you, employ a third party like me to do it. You may benefit from working with someone who has no vested interest in the answer. I’ve recently worked with an organisation who have been brave enough to accept that if we can’t find evidence for their new departments proposition, maybe they pack it in and focus their time on other areas of commercial growth. In my words not theirs, there is no point flogging a dead horse.

Test your findings

  1. Create a hypothesis about what you could change to better solve the problem your client has. Think how you might solve a different, new problem that you don’t currently work on. Examples might be, specialising in a particular market where you can better service specific client problems over someone else. It could be that you discover there is a more niche business model you could explore, this article might inspire you to think about finding a common problem to solve in a new way – which often means innovation in the business model itself. It might be you just need to productise or simplify what you already do and it would be much more compelling to the time-poor, highly-pressured customer at the other end.
  2. Before you change everything, test it! Test it in the SMALLEST WAY YOU CAN. Go back to people and talk to them. Create a one page website and a first draft of credentials and go and meet people. Ask their opinion. Always be prepared to change it. Be ready to to find something even more specific and useful.
  3. Don’t stop doing 1 – 4. Customer problems keep changing, they always will. You need to change with them.

Become invaluable, or risk drowning

A good value proposition should feel like a godsend to your customer, helping them solve a problem in a simple and effective way. Keep an eye on the moving target. I’ll leave it to Bob to wrap up.

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

If you want to find out more about how Subsector help organisations to prioritise in a complex world, start with the N2D Method, a tool we use for helping organisations make better decisions based on the needs of their market.


Image Credit: Iwan Gabovitch