Every vendor we deal with tells us that we need to find our unique value proposition. I own an MSP in Oakland County, Mich. There are over 2,000 IT businesses in my county. How am I supposed to be unique from that many others? It is a question that I struggled with for many years. I knew that I was unique but I didn’t know how to express it. If you are struggling with those same issues, then this article is for you.
It’s not as difficult as you might think to find your unique value proposition because you already are unique. All you need to do is identify your uniqueness, embrace it and then put it front and center in your messaging. So how do you identify your uniqueness?
Contrary to what vendors will tell you, your unique value proposition doesn’t have anything to do with the products you offer, the packages you put together, your pricing, the speedy response of your staff, or probably not even their credentials. It has everything to do with the CEO/owner of the business, their outlook, attitude, and reasons for choosing to be in this business in the first place. Every small firm takes on the personality of its CEO. Instinctively you know this. Just look at your clients, their businesses, and the CEO of those companies. You probably have clients that are in the same business as each other but those two companies are not identical. They are unique because of the person that formed the company in the manner that is operating today. That person and their values are the drivers of the business and this where you are going to find your unique value proposition.
You may not be aware of what makes you unique or what has brought you to this point so I recommend starting from the beginning.
My MSP origin story
I’m going to tell you the story of the beginning of my MSP business and point out along the way where it indicates a point that eventually turns into the unique value proposition that we offer today.
In the nascent beginnings of my MSP business, I was essentially working two jobs. One as a systems engineer for a software company that had me traveling three weeks a month, flying into places around the country to bail out the local systems engineer from a messed up deployment of our software, and restoring the customers' faith in our company. I had to fix both the technical issue and the customer dissatisfaction issue. It was grueling, and I wasn’t happy traveling that much. It was always my experience that the better you become in IT the more travel you end up doing. Meanwhile, being a person who wants to help others, I ended up with a collection of small-business clients that I was helping on the side. They accumulated over time as referrals from the individuals I was helping at the school districts I interacted with during my day job. I was asked if I could help their uncle, cousin, wife, or husband with an IT problem at their small business and of course, I said, sure. I would talk them through it over the phone from the airport, stop by after hours or on weekends, and I would witness just how lousy their current situation was. I offered advice and implemented changes. They came to trust me. This unexpectedly turned into me being their primary IT support person.
Lesson 1: I like to help people
I got hooked on working with small businesses because I was impressed with the passion that many of them had for the work they were doing. I felt that passion in myself and for my chosen career. I had a drive that can only come from within and makes you want to keep going, doing more and more because you simply love it. These small business owners had that too. They had no problem accommodating my crazy schedule, meeting me after hours and on weekends because they loved their business and wanted to make it better. And I wanted to make it better for them too. I found a synergy that couldn’t be denied.
Lesson 2: Small business owners think like me and I think like them
I worked myself into a state of exhaustion — and I mean that literally. I had found what I loved but it was killing me. I made the decision to quit my job and focus on small business only for a while. That turned into my new life but I didn’t know that then. I asked my clients to sign a contract agreeing to pay me every month in return for my continued work. Every one of them did. I was now an MSP business owner with contractual clients.
Lesson 3: I have a need for a baseline of security in my life
As I continued to encounter small businesses and understand their needs and the technology they were using I found myself introduced to a small business server. What an amazing product suite for small business it was. It contained everything they needed from an on-premises server but I didn’t know the product. Because I love technology I threw myself into learning everything about it. I understood the underlying technologies, server, DNS, DHCP, Exchange, IIS, SQL — I was even certified in those. But I had never seen or heard of ISA, the firewall product in this suite. So I started learning it online and I dove in deep and began to participate in forums and mailing lists dedicated to the product. Not too far into that, I realized that I actually knew quite a bit and I began offering advice and solutions to my peers online. This eventually led to the receipt of an MVP award from Microsoft. I had gone to my first conference the year before at the invitation of a Microsoft MVP and encountered other Microsoft MVPs for the first time. What a thrill to be recognized by my peers as an expert.
Sacrificing money for a long time, I hired a few technical people to help me in the business as the MSP grew. This worked for me because I’m not a money-motivated person. I had my motivation serviced by the excitement of learning and teaching, as it turns out. After becoming an MVP, I found myself offered opportunities to speak at conferences and contribute to books. I also started a technical blog. I found that my passion now included learning and teaching too. This was really an expansion of wanting to help that I identified in myself earlier.
Lesson 4: I love to learn, I love to help, and I love to teach
I expected my new technical staff to be the same as me. I felt and still feel that the relationship with the small business is the most important part of the job because without it we cannot offer good solutions to their problems nor help them use technology to reach their goals. We’d be outside looking in, instead of inside as a part of the team.
We all need to be learning and growing in our technical expertise all the time. My staff needed to be people with a passion for technology and a love of small business. We needed to have that one-on-one relationship with our clients. That I expected my new staff to be like me is the thing that forms the personality of a business. Small businesses are an extension of the owner.
Lesson 5: We need to be part of our clients’ team
From this point, my MSP business was set on a definite path and it had its personality. Loving and committed to small business. Learning new technology. Bringing solutions to our clients because we were part of their team. A group with a passion for the career path they have chosen.
Finding your strengths
I found the strengths in my business by looking at our MSP origin story from before day one until the personality of the business became clear.
The interesting thing about our strengths is that none of them speak directly to technical expertise. And yet underlying all of them is an assumed competency. I can’t stand it when I don’t know everything about a product or solution and I expect my staff to be experts. I need to dig in deep and become the expert. So that love to learn needs to be expressed more definitively as a strength
We need to be experts in each of the technologies we offer
I read once that if you put 10,000 hours, which takes about 10 years to accomplish, you will be the No. 1 expert in that subject. Ten years into Harbor Computer Services we won a big award from Microsoft — Small Business Partner of the Year. It was confirmation that we were doing the right thing. This occurred at the height of the 2008-2010 economic depression and all of our clients kept us on, even as they all laid off 20 percent to 25 percent of their employees. It was a double whammy of acknowledgment that we’d accomplished our reason for being which was to do great things for small businesses.
I’ve also heard that if you read one article about a thing, say Office 365, for example, that after only 18 months you will be one of the world experts on that topic. I have adopted this philosophy in learning and my staff trains together for four hours each week toward this end.
Building your solutions around your unique values
Many businesses have taglines and I’m a big fan of them. It tells you something right off the bat about that business and it’s a great conversation starter. Before I successfully defined my unique value proposition I struggled with creating a tagline. For many years we simply used Small Business Specialists. We used that phrase before, during, and after Microsoft’s appropriation of phrase. While it communicated our market focus it didn’t communicate our uniqueness. However, once I sat down to think through the above narrative of our origin story, a new tagline — the conversation starter, the thing that brings us to provide technical support and solutions to small businesses in the first place —became evident.
‘We care about your business’
It’s not fancy or complex or trendy. But “We care about your business” conveys trust, relationship, and our reason for wanting to work with our clients. This phrase speaks to the small business market. Small businesses run on relationships and trust.
This is how we found the soul of our MSP.