Justin Gray is the CEO and chief marketing evangelist of LeadMD. He founded the company in 2009 with the vision of transforming traditional grassroots marketing efforts through the use of cloud-based marketing solutions.

There's a common misconception that business owners don't make as many mistakes as other professionals. The truth is, they make more. They take more risks, they explore more terrain, and consequently they sometimes "choose poorly"--just like in Indiana Jones. But unlike that movie, business owners can reach again and again for the Holy Grail of business success, because they can learn from their past mistakes each time.

One of my biggest mistakes with my company LeadMD happened early on, and it taught me lessons that guide my business dealings today. My mistake was this: selling my customer exactly what they thought they needed.

LeadMD was a young company at the time. A client needed help with marketing automation, and not just any client. This was a promising client with plenty of potential business, which an experienced business owner would have recognized and coaxed into a long-term relationship. Not us, though. Instead, our team listened to their requests and diligently wrote up SOWs for the campaigns and emails they wanted. And once we delivered everything they asked for? They went dark and cut us off.

Let me be clear: we did everything they asked of us and we did it well. No mistakes were made, except one major one. We had worked ourselves out of a job.

Discovering the Opportunity

LeadMD isn't the only young business to shoot themselves in the foot this way. When clients walk in the door with $50,000 in their hands, it's a natural instinct to jump up and prove you can fulfill their requests. The thing is, you're not servicing them to the best of your ability when you do that.

Think of yourself as a doctor. If someone comes into your office and announces they've looked at Web MD and diagnosed themselves with toe cancer, would you automatically treat them for toe cancer? No. You'd do your own exam and tests and probably discover they have a very different condition. That's your job, after all. You're the professional; they're paying for your expertise. So it's your job to look beyond their assumptions and spot both the real needs and the biggest opportunities.

It's the difference between an order-taker and an expert. On a regular basis, my company works with new customers who ask for precise deliverables. My team could easily come in and execute, but we would be limiting the relationship and possibly shortchanging our customer. Instead we bring our full knowledge and power to the table and evaluate how we can make each client as successful as possible. It's not about completing defined projects, but finding ways to expand their ROI.

The fact is, it's easy to follow along with what the client wants. It's harder to push back and ask strategic questions on their goals and challenges and suggest areas where they may need to pivot. Sometimes business leaders worry if they try to go beyond the client's request, it'll be perceived as an attempt at upselling. But if you engage on a strategic level and demonstrate that you're genuinely working to advance their interests, the client will stay connected.

Opening the Door to the Future

In the end, you don't get a seat at the revenue table by being an expense line item. You claim a seat by becoming a revenue line item. If your client looks at you and sees something that eats up budget, rather than a solution that pumps cash into the business, you're going to eventually end up on the chopping block.

But if you're the reason the business went from $20M to $200M, you'll be viewed as an integral part of the company's future. And with that extended relationship comes loyalty and trust, introductions to people who matter--a return that exponentially exceeds the initial sum the client offered for a finite service.

Looking back, it's not surprising that we lost that client. We delivered the goods, sure. But when they lost funding, they cut the services they viewed as a frill and that would be us. We hadn't made the case for our necessity. And that was 100 percent our fault.

Today my business sells customers what they need, not what they think they want. Don't get me wrong; the voice of the customer is still honored. But so is the strategy and perspicacity our team has developed from years of making other customers successful. That's ultimately what we offer as a brand, not services on a menu. We do this using a methodology that we call 'benchmarking'--in simple terms, the process of measuring a prospect against the market standard as well as our customer base. By allowing the prospect to see were their peers are at vs. their status, we triangulate their maturity. This is paramount as we shift their self prescription to where their needs actually fall. By sharing real metrics as well as our expertise, we open new doors for our clients and help them go beyond what they thought possible--and they keep coming back for more.

Think about your customers, and the vendors you work with where you're the customer. Do you feel like your vendors know what your goals are, why you work with them and what you're hoping to accomplish? Next, take that one step further: Can you answer those questions about your customer? That's the true essence of what makes benchmarking so important--and, ultimately, what will make your partnerships and your business successful.

Published on: Apr 22, 2015
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