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We are, and I am, sloppy in our language, at times, particularly when we speak of value and value creation.

We tend to think of value in a one-sided way, as something we “bestow” on the customer. At it’s worst, value is something we determine in our companies–we position it as our value propositions, embed it in our “features/advantages/benefits.”

The laziest in our profession don’t even seek to understand what customers value, instead presenting what we’ve determined as value, letting customers figure out whether it applies to them or not.

At it’s best, which actually is very good, we understand what our customers value, presenting what we do in the context of what we can do for them. But too few sales people do this. We label this process of discovery then presenting our value as “value creation.”

The reality is, we really can’t create value, we can only create value with our customers. The subtly in this is what we too often miss in value creation (or co-creation).

In reality, as much as we like to think this, customers struggle, as we do, with value. We think we can discover what they value. If we ask the right questions, they’ll be able to tell us what’s important to them, what they value.

But that’s only part of the journey–it gets us and the customer 80% of the way there. But it’s that other 20% that’s the real magic. It’s what we and the customer discover together.

It’s the process where we and our customer are learning together. Discovering what they might achieve, understanding the challenges, roadblocks, and risks, evaluating different courses of action. We share in figuring out how to make things happen in their organization–and ours since we are supporting them in the process. Together we learn how to get this sold within the organization, how to drive change, align the implementation team and realize the results the customer expected.

In reality, value isn’t a simple concept. We can’t tell customers what they should value. They can’t completely articulate what they value.

Value is actually quite messy. It changes through the problem solving/buying process. We and our customers go down blind alleys, hit dead ends. We work together figuring it out as we go, learning, discovering, sharing, making some decisions–perhaps only to change them later.

It’s not something we do to, or for our customers. It’s something we do with our customers.

That is, unless we are too late. The customer will figure it out, if we are too late, then we can’t create value with them. They’ve done the hard work–possibly not correctly, but they’ve gotten to the point where we can only be a vendor.