Why Is Getting a Common View on Value Difficult?

The challenge of coming to a common understanding of what value looks like lies deeper than just solving the everyday communication problem of making sure people in the organisation talk to each other and share the information they have about what customers need, what their attitudes and behaviours are and how they make buying decisions.

Simply collecting every last detail about the customer doesn’t necessarily lead to a better understanding of what makes them tick. This is because the people we work with often have different views about the most significant aspect of the value conversation. What is seen as important to one person might be ignored by another. This happens because we are selective in the way we process information: we tend to pay attention to information that con?firms our world view and reject information that challenges it. Furthermore, experienced executives can fall prey to what Ron Westrum of Eastern Michigan University in his article ‘Social intelligence about hidden events: Its significance for scientific research and social policy’ called ‘the fallacy of centrality’. This is where individuals such as seasoned sales and marketing professionals are convinced they know everything that is going on in their market sector and with their customers, so they treat anything new or unusual as completely implausible and deny it matters to the business. In other words, if they don’t know about it, how can it possibly be true?

Therefore people in different roles and at different levels have diverse views about value. The chief financial officer (CFO) might only pay attention to what the customer has to say about price because his/her world revolves around finance, whereas the key account manager might place particular importance on information sharing and idea creation because his/her world revolves around customer service. Alternatively, the chief marketing officer (CMO), who has been head of the department for several years, disregards input from a junior sales executive when s/he reports back that customers are saying the basis of the present market offering is off target because customers are saying they place more value on access to the supplier’s business network rather than the future proofing of products promoted in the current marketing campaign. Value for each individual is regarded as such a self-evident thing they don’t spend time thinking too deeply about it and they don’t expect their co-workers to have a significantly different take from their own.

Organisational psychologist Chris Argyris has studied how professionals avoid thinking deeply about the assumptions they have about their business world and how it works. In his book On Organisational Learning he says we take our assumptions for granted and fail to realise the powerful influence they have on the way we interpret information, make decisions and take action. This means we have to put extra time, thought and energy into bringing these taken-for-granted assumptions to the surface if we are to solve the puzzle of what customer value really means. It needs to done before we even start to discuss our personal ideas on how to deliver and communicate value, otherwise we might jump to conclusions and get locked into a cycle of talking past each other in the value conversation.

This means that before anything else we need to establish what we are talking about. Doing this is not as easy as it seems. Organisations are places where personal reputations, power and ambitions reside. Argyris tells us that because of this we engage in defensive reasoning to protect our positions and our egos. Therefore, in the case of something as profound as the question ‘so what do you actually mean by value’ people feel too embarrassed to ask or too fearful to challenge what is meant by it. The situation gets progressively worse over time as the topic is swept under the carpet or, as Argyris says, it becomes ‘undiscussable’. It gets worse still when it becomes accepted as a cultural norm that ‘we don’t talk about what we mean by value around here’, which means that even mentioning there might be an issue to resolve becomes undiscussable too!

Of course, many companies are very good at researching what customers value. They spend a lot of time and money forecasting trends, doing market research and speaking with customers to find out what matters to the buyer and the consumer in order to understand the benefits they seek and what they need. This is the everyday pursuit of value understanding, and so you might expect that most companies have a consistent and commonly understood view of what value means in their sector and for their customers.

The challenge comes when customers need change, when there are competing versions of what value is, such as the marketing perspective and the sales perspective, because organisations are large and complex, or the value conversation never takes place at all.

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