Last month, Professor Paul Ingram at Columbia Business School taught me a new framework called a values hierarchy. I've been working with corporate values for about a decade now, but admittedly, I've never looked at them as having an order of importance.
Once I went through his exercise--choosing my core values, prioritizing them and reflecting on whether they captured what I stand for--I instantly saw how useful this framework could be for my business.
In essence, a values hierarchy should guide your decisions and help explain your frustrations. To make one of your own, write down a brainstorm of core values that resonate with you -- things like "happy," and "truth," and "passion." Then, pick 6 to 10 of your top values, and prioritize them in order from fundamental value to ultimate achievement.
So, for instance, my hierarchy starts with the foundation of honesty and passion, and ends with service to others (my logic is that if I have honesty and passion and they funnel to other values in between, my ultimate value is helping others to achieve greatness).
Now, if I encounter someone who frustrates me or doesn't work well with me, chances are that the mismatch can be explained by a mismatch in values (perhaps the person isn't truly honest, or doesn't value helping others, for instance).
This exercise is undeniably helpful for you as a leader, since it helps you clarify what you stand for. But it's equally helpful in vetting new clients.
Think about it: you know exactly what makes an ideal client for you. Those are the clients who pay well and don't tax your employees too much. You also probably produce the best results for them, and you might even enjoy hanging out with them in a social setting.
Applying the hierarchy to prospective clients
Of course, you would rather only onboard new clients that fit this profile. But the question is, how do you find them?
That's where the values hierarchy comes in. Imagine if you drafted all the values that make your best client your best client. Then, in one place, anyone could easily see the components that your sales and marketing departments are looking for. For internal use, that would certainly be a useful tool for discerning whether to move forward talking with a prospect or not.
But the real power happens when you actually show your values hierarchy to prospects to directly indicate what they're getting into.
Let's say, as an example, you value high-paying clients (I mean, who doesn't). You've decided that you don't want tire-kickers, or someone who's going to beat you up on price. So when you get to a critical point in your talks, you break out your values hierarchy and say, "you'll notice that one of our values is 'premium.' We value providing a premium service and premium results, and we promise to ensure that for your premium spend with us, we maximize every dollar."
What you're saying is that you promise to deliver results. What they hear is, "oh, I better have a good enough budget for this." If your prospect has the right budget and also shares your value of getting the maximum results for the money, then you know you'll have great alignment in a longer relationship. Go sign the contract already!
Your values hierarchy could be used for hiring and firing, employee reviews, board member alignment, and more. It's one of those guiding frameworks that, once complete, will develop more and more uses throughout your organization.
So let's make a new rule together: no more bad clients. Now you know how to tell which prospects are going to become your next star customers - and with your values hierarchy as your magnet, it should be much easier to find that needle in the haystack.