Late last year, I traveled to a medical staffing firm that had experienced strong growth over its 15-year history, but the market had recently become more competitive, and its growth had slowed considerably. I was there to get it back on track.

The company’s sales leaders described a sales organization that never got off the treadmill; they were selling as fast as they could to replace customers that were not renewing or were switching to competitors. The problem wasn’t even that the customers were unhappy; it was that the customers were simply buying on price.

It quickly became apparent the real problem was a poorly stated value proposition. Customers didn’t understand why they should buy or renew, and the salespeople weren’t doing a great job of telling them. Their company was completely undifferentiated.

We needed to figure out how we could deliver a better value proposition and differentiate this firm. Because innovation is born in a diversity of ideas that sometimes can only be produced within the safety of quantity, we got creative, breaking our brainstorming into five generations of ideas, asking general questions to push our thinking:

  1. How have people within our own company created and delivered our value proposition over the past 15 years? Historically, it was through high-level corporate messages about relationship, sourcing of quality candidates and understanding the business. But most of the company outside the executive suite didn’t really understand what a value proposition is, let alone how, when and why to use it.
  2. How have other companies in our industry, including our competitors, delivered their value propositions? Many competitors’ value propositions were around speed and price — not necessarily true quality — which meant that there might be an opportunity for our client to do something unique. When the company compared its value proposition to others in the industry, its leaders realized that communicating the value proposition was especially important because it was so different.
  3. How do companies with similar business models deliver their value propositions? We looked at other services organizations including consulting, outsourcing and law firms. All of these organizations had parallels to staffing, such as representing and reselling the services of others. In the consulting and legal professions we found components — for example, creating customer loyalty and providing advisory services in addition to the core product — that the staffing firm could leverage as part of its value proposition.
  4. How do companies with dissimilar business models deliver their value propositions? Here, we considered companies that rapidly provide products and services while keeping costs down, similar to pre-sourcing candidates. We also considered retail, such as grocery stores or clothing stores, where customers pick out the products they want, pay for them, and leave. This prompted the staffing company to think about an online database of their contractors, their availability, and their prices so clients could shop for a client.
  5. How do organizations outside of business deliver value? How do families deliver a value proposition? Respect? Monetary means? Guilt? How is loyalty created among all those crazy aunts and uncles? Admittedly some of these ideas began to get far out, but that’s the point. Half-joking suggestions of guilt and family sparked ideas about treating the contract employees like family — organizing companywide annual family picnics, for example, and collecting testimonials from contract employees who felt the same affinity for their employer that a fulltime employee might feel. These ideas all became part of the value proposition about how well the company treats its contractors, enabling it to hire only the best.

Following this exercise, we put together many different value propositions, from the conservative to the outlandish. The staffing agency worked through the list until it came to the value proposition and delivery method that best represented it. The five generations of ideas pushed their thinking into new territory, and they have begun to stand out among competitors.