I don’t know why I got my first job. Maybe it was because I could analyze stuff. And it had been a while since the last hiring freeze.
They gave me a desk and a computer with this brand new software for building spreadsheets. I guess that tells you how old I am; I entered the workplace the same year as the greatest commercial invention since the abacus.
That first week, they didn’t know what to do with me. So they invited me to meetings. Internal meetings about specific accounts and how we might make money. At the meetings I got to listen. To discussions of deals we could do. To what they said about our customers.
I began to build spreadsheets. Spreadsheets about how our products could make money for our customers. Spreadsheets quantifying the benefit to our customers in dollars and cents. I didn’t know what a value proposition was, but I wrote one several times a week.
The first airtime I got was at an internal meeting. An account manager asked me what our deal was worth to his account. I walked him through my spreadsheet. He checked my math. He told me that my argument was too long. That my explanations were too complicated. That I needed graphs.
I redid my spreadsheet. Seven times. He took my spreadsheet and my graphs to his account and closed the deal. I got to watch him take his victory lap. I heard he made forty grand on that one. Watching him was better than nothing.
The next ten value propositions I did were better. Cleaner. Simpler. I bought a silk tie and leather shoes. One month later, they let me go to a customer meeting. Two months later, they let me talk at one. I got better at presenting. The account managers kept taking victory laps. I was new that year; I didn’t get a bonus.
Early in the new year, I woke up. I realized that I understood our products’ impact on our customers’ business better than anyone else. And I was the only guy who could quantify it. I had an edge. Spreadsheets that no one else could use. Spreadsheets that no one else could explain. Value propositions that made me the star of every customer meeting.
Finally I got to take victory laps. For every deal my spreadsheets closed, my year-end bonus was mind-numbing, but I had learned to keep a straight face. I bought some designer ties.
I had organizational visibility. At sales meetings, they talked about my spreadsheets. What I did got a functional description. War stories about my Value propositions became part of our “culture of success.”
Then the inevitable. The announcement that I would report to a new boss. A tough, clean-cut guy who was accountable for a huge percentage of revenues with 20 direct reports. The guy was a deal-closing legend. Ex-military. I bought some nicer suits.
For my first meeting with my boss, I practiced standing up straight. He looked me in the eye and said, “Are you ready?” I didn’t know what to say so I nodded. “Your value propositions are going to take our business to the next level. That is, if you’re ready… to dial it up.” Pause. I smiled a little. “Make no mistake. Rewards follow results.” Pause again. I smiled a lot.
He laid out a plan to get me in front of all our best accounts. Some account managers didn’t like it, but they weren’t going to mess with my boss.
My spreadsheets and I closed more deals. Lots of deals. Big deals. I worked 90 hour weeks. My bonus tripled. I bought a bespoke suit.
The second meeting with my boss, he said “you know, you’re stretched too thin. You need to teach the account managers how to present and tailor your value propositions. And it’s high time you got some leverage.” I nodded and thanked him. But I wasn’t crazy enough to give up my place at customer meetings. That was why they needed me. That was why they paid me. So I hired a smart, fresh-faced sidekick. I taught him my spreadsheets. And the sidekick made them more elaborate. We streamlined our value proposition production process. I spent all my time in front of customers. I was still the guy you had to have at a meeting. The sidekick worked 90 hour weeks. I got a life.
Not all the meetings were perfect. My sidekick made mistakes. Sometimes I caught them. Sometimes customers caught them. And his spreadsheets were too elaborate for me to correct on the fly. Then there was the time I had a schedule conflict. And one of the account managers took the sidekick to his meeting. The sidekick didn’t have a silk tie or leather shoes. The account manager wasn’t happy.
The third meeting with my boss was a bonus meeting. I had touched three times the deal revenues that I had touched the previous year. A friend had guided me to expect a bonus up at least 50%.
I sat down. My boss looked me in the eye and said, “You had a good year. We had some hiccups but you are an important member of the team. We want to recognize your contribution. Your bonus is up 10% on last year.”
My cheeks probably got red, but I kept my mouth shut. He continued, “but you have to admit, we aren’t leveraging our value propositions effectively yet. That sidekick is just a kid and he doesn’t get it. We’re hiring two experienced, customer-facing specialists, just like you, to do what you do. The three of you will report to my staff guy. The sidekick will support the three of you.”
I kept a straight face. I looked at him and said thank you. I walked out of his office.
I was no longer indispensable.
Don’t get me wrong. I made good money after that. I was a great subject matter expert, trading on my spreadsheets. Good account managers gradually got better at presenting value propositions themselves. It was natural. Value conversations closed more deals. And they didn’t all need me.
And I became just another cog in a production line. Not a manager. Not a leader. No promotion. I ran into the career roadblock that Excel built.
I always thought I could have gone places early in my career there. But I didn’t. Eventually I got bored. I moved on.
Twenty-five years later, I paused to think about how my career start might have been different. If only…
If only I had understood the importance of making quantified value accessible to everyone in our team for better deployment in the right customer conversation. For a brief moment I held the key to our team’s ability to win with value propositions. I could have made customer value contagious instead of turning it into spreadsheet turf.
If only I had dodged the un-scalability of spreadsheets. I should have figured out a way to make my best value propositions widely available. In a high quality, controlled, compliant, customizable form with sources provided, consistent graphics and messaging that others could understand and use.
If only I had been born twenty-five years later. So that I could start my career with cloud software. I could have leveraged collaborative tools with the ability to collect data. Tools that support and sustain B2B enterprises that create, communicate and capture customer value.
Cloud software for value propositions is an uptick on the abacus. And it’s more career-enhancing than spreadsheets.