Let me tell you how great I am.
If I had seriously begun this article with that line, would you have kept reading?
Hearing people speak about their core competence is like listening to the boring high school friend who can only talk about how great he was back in the day. No one listens, no one cares, because it is totally irrelevant to their lives in any way.
So, you’re very good at something; so what?
People don’t care what you do; they care what you do for them. The only reason your company even exists to be in position to develop a core competence is to make a contribution to customers in some way. No one cares how good your mousetrap is if they don’t have mice, or if the one they have works well enough.
Remember the old saying that an expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing? Although not as extreme, that’s the risk you run into when you focus exclusively on your competences and not your contributions. Focusing on core competence keeps you looking internally, but needs exist externally.
You have to keep looking externally to stay you grounded in economic reality. For example, Sony still puts out excellent products, but it is a shell of its former self because it has not kept up with what consumers want and how they buy. Contributions keep you relevant, so that people want to hear what you do. If you can talk about that first, they will want to know more about your core competence.
So why not start with that—instead of talking about how great you are, why not talk about how great you can make your customer? Core competence focuses on how you do things, but the why always has to come first. The most important question, as Niraj Dawar reminds us in his book, Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers, is not “What do you do?”, but, “Why do customers buy from you?” That’s another way of saying that you have to start from the outside-in. The answer to that (external) question will govern where you focus your (internal) efforts.
What do you contribute to your customer’s business or personal bottom line? What do you contribute to improve their personal experience? Do you make them more profitable, do you make them look good, protect them from harm or risk, make their lives easier?
When people ask you what you do, they are just following social conventions, but that’s not really what they want to know. The urge to be polite prevents them from asking what they really want to know: “What can you do for me?”
So, next time someone asks you what you do, save them the trouble and answer the question they wanted to ask.
I had to learn that message myself. For years, when people ask me what I do, I would answer that I am a corporate trainer. Now, I tell them that I make people more persuasive. It definitely makes for longer conversations!