Veteran cubicle dwellers will all recall the absurdity of the exchange between Tom Smykowski and “the Bobs,” corporate reorg consultants in the 1999 cult classic Office Space. Tom’s a disgruntled company veteran that’s pushed for explanation of his role and importance to Initech, the high tech company where he works. Clearly having never been asked the question before, Tom mutters an awkward explanation or two, and finally explodes, “Look! I already told you. I deal with the god damn customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills. I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that?! What the hell is wrong with you people?”

What about the rest of us here in the real world? How prepared are we when someone asks us what we do for a living? I’ve observed that the great majority of business professionals are ill-prepared to answer that simplest of questions in a manner that inspires any level of curiosity to learn more. Most of us stammer, default to the title on our business card, or worse yet, give a long-winded attempt to explain the mundane functionalities of our work. Wake me up when you’re done.

If you find yourself struggling to connect with others when interacting professionally, your value proposition needs work. Yes, the term may be a bit cliché, but in practice, it’s your ability to explain how you impact your company’s business or how you solve your customer’s problems that determines whether someone wants to work with you. Imagine a scenario in which you happen to meet two different mortgage brokers at the same cocktail party. The first, when asked what he does for work, replies “I’m a Loan Officer.” The other, when asked the same question an hour later, responds “You know how you hear how grueling and time consuming the mortgage application process is today? I’ve been a Loan Officer for the last three years, and I took my experience as a former Customer Service Manager and made it my job to make the whole process a little smoother for clients. I play concierge through the entire home-buying process, so they can keep their time focused on their jobs, their families, and whatever else is important to them – not piles of paperwork.” Who would you want to work with if you were even remotely in the market to refinance or buy a new home?

Your value proposition can be created in just a few minutes, by answering two simple questions:

  1. Who is your audience? Previously working as a Financial Advisor, I’ve worked in several distinct demographic markets, each with its own set of common concerns and circumstances. For instance, if you polled a hundred people between the ages of 60-65, and asked them how prepared they feel they are to retire, you’ll find a lot of concerned looks. If you asked a handful of closely held business owners in their late 40’s what keeps them up at night, you’ll hear another set of issues: competitive pressures, taxes and regulatory issues, hiring and keeping the talent they need to grow, making payroll, and so on. If you know the basic demographic makeup of who you’re talking to, a great place to start is to empathize with their key concerns. Talk about them. While everyone’s situation is unique, articulating your understanding of typical key issues is a great place to start.
  2. What problems have you solved, or are you working to solve for your customers? If you are in Sales, or own your own business, you know who your customers are. They sign contracts, write checks, and bring in revenue. How does your work benefit them? Telling a story about how you helped someone like them solve a problem is a great approach. Have your go-to stories to utilize in conversation. If you’re an internal employee, the organization is your customer. How are you improving your organization through your work?

The key to mastering your Value Proposition is practice. The more you practice, the better you’ll sound, and the more attractive you’ll become to your professional audiences. A simple strategy to improve your talk is to record yourself on your smartphone, and play it back. Repeat until you’d hire yourself, or you’d buy from yourself. You’ll be your own toughest critic.

Whether you’re in Marketing, IT, Customer Service, or you own the company, we are all in Sales. Condition yourself to seamlessly articulate the value you bring to your organization or to your market, and opportunities will begin to materialize all around you.