• Chris Ward

The one question every business must be able to answer

Updated: Dec 17, 2020


"What’s in it for me?" might just be the most ubiquitous question in the English language. Or any language for that matter. It’s a question every one of us answers every time we make a decision to buy, join or donate.


If this doesn’t strike a familiar cord, I will tell you straight out that it’s not a question usually asked out loud. Truth be told, most of the time you answer it without even realizing that you have. That said, there is no doubt it has to be answered before you can make an informed decision.


You could be considering a new job offer, or wondering whether to make a job offer to candidate A or B. You could be considering a new photocopier; evaluating proposals from several waste management suppliers; or deciding on an exciting cruise versus a relaxing staycation. Before you make the decision, it’s the one question you really have to deal with.


We have choices

Not convinced? Perhaps it will make more sense when I add a few words to the question…

“Why should I do what you want me to do? What’s in it for me?"


For many businesses, the competition is insane. For others, it is only somewhat ridiculous. Even if you’re lucky enough to have staked out a space in which you have no direct competition, or at least no competitors doing it the way you do it, you’re still competing with alternatives. Consumers deal with competing alternatives all the time. Do I get that new set of golf clubs, or invest in a smart TV? Do I take my significant other out to dinner and a play, or put that money into our vacation fund? Many alternatives are competing for our hard-earned money. Some want a slice of our increasing scarce time. Each is doing its best to get us to do what they want us to do.


It’s in our genes

Metaphorically, the money to pay for these decisions is in our jeans. But the inherent need to answer ‘the question’ is actually in our genes. It’s built into our DNA; it’s part of the human condition.


This holds true even for charitable donations.


In years gone by, when I suggested this to clients in the charitable space, I frequently got pushback. “You are sooooo wrong. People donate because they get the important work we’re doing!” There's little doubt the work is important. But that misses the point.

The point is, when you make a decision to donate to a charity, that decision is as much about you as it is about the charity. There are dozens—hundreds—of worthy causes. But you chose the one you did.


When you made this decision you had a personal reason for it. That reason might have been as simple as, “It makes me feel good to know I’m helping others like my cousin Pat who have been afflicted with this disease.” This explains the otherwise inexplicable: donating is not like buying a car. You can’t marvel at the beautiful lines, or run your hand appreciatively over the Connolly Leather upholstery. What you can do is feel very good about you—about the decision you’ve just made which, you believe, will make a small difference.


From hiring decisions to buying tangibles, it's still all about me!

Here’s the thing: anyone who hires others is really two people. On one hand he or she is charged with finding the best person for the job. On the other, the new hiree can have an impact on the reputation and, possibly, the career prospects of the hirer. Is the decision maker going to consider how this decision will affect them? You bet they will! “What’s in it for me?”


You might find it a bit easier to agree with the premise when the decision involves buying a product or service, or joining an association or club. In almost every case (if you're in a regulated profession you might not have a choice), you have options. From choosing a good lawyer, to selecting a reliable office coffee service, to joining a networking group, the decision you make will be important on a number of levels. But at the end of the day, given a choice, you are very unlikely to make a decision that does not provide you with a perceived benefit. “What’s in it for me!”


Relating ‘the question’ to your business strategy

From any perspective, understanding how prospective customers, members or donors are likely to answer, “What’s in it for me?” is essential. And this understanding of what customers value has to be factored into your overall business strategy.


According to management guru Peter Drucker, a business has one purpose: To create, and keep, a customer.


We believe that corporate planning – business, marketing, brand, people – has one essential job: to map out a path to creating customers, and owning a market position that is meaningful and defensible.


If this doesn’t strike a familiar cord, I will tell you straight out that it’s not a question usually asked out loud. Truth be told, most of the time you answer it without even realizing that you have. That said, there is no doubt it has to be answered before you can make an informed decision.


You could be considering a new job offer, or wondering whether to make a job offer to candidate A or B. You could be considering a new photocopier; evaluating proposals from several waste management suppliers; or deciding on an exciting cruise versus a relaxing staycation. Before you make the decision, it’s the one question you really have to deal with.


We have choices

Not convinced? Perhaps it will make more sense when I add a few words to the question…

“Why should I do what you want me to do? What’s in it for me?"


For many businesses, the competition is insane. For others, it is only somewhat ridiculous. Even if you’re lucky enough to have staked out a space in which you have no direct competition, or at least no competitors doing it the way you do it, you’re still competing with alternatives. Consumers deal with competing alternatives all the time. Do I get that new set of golf clubs, or invest in a smart TV? Do I take my significant other out to dinner and a play, or put that money into our vacation fund? Many alternatives are competing for our hard-earned money. Some want a slice of our increasing scarce time. Each is doing its best to get us to do what they want us to do.


It’s in our genes

Metaphorically, the money to pay for these decisions is in our jeans. But the inherent need to answer ‘the question’ is actually in our genes. It’s built into our DNA; it’s part of the human condition.


This holds true even for charitable donations.


In years gone by, when I suggested this to clients in the charitable space, I frequently got pushback. “You are sooooo wrong. People donate because they get the important work we’re doing!” There's little doubt the work is important. But that misses the point.

The point is, when you make a decision to donate to a charity, that decision is as much about you as it is about the charity. There are dozens – hundreds – of worthy causes. And you chose one. So what does that mean?


Very simply, when you made your choice you had a personal reason for it. That reason might have been as simple as, “It makes me feel good to know I’m helping others like my cousin Pat who have been afflicted with this disease.” This explains the otherwise inexplicable: donating is not like buying a car. You can’t marvel at the beautiful lines, or run your hand appreciatively over the Connolly Leather upholstery. What you can do is feel very good about you – about the decision you’ve just made which, you believe, will make a small difference.


From hiring decisions to buying tangibles, it's still all about me!

Here’s the thing: anyone who hires others is really two people. On one hand he or she is charged with finding the best person for the job. On the other, the new hiree can have an impact on the reputation and, possibly, the career prospects of the hirer. Is the decision maker going to consider how this decision will affect them? You bet they will! “What’s in it for me?”


You might find it a bit easier to agree with the premise when the decision involves buying a product or service, or joining an association or club. In almost every case (if you're in a regulated profession you might not have a choice), you have options. From choosing a good lawyer, to selecting a reliable office coffee service, to joining a networking group, the decision you make will be important on a number of levels. But at the end of the day, given a choice, you are very unlikely to make a decision that does not provide you with a perceived benefit. “What’s in it for me!”


Relating ‘the question’ to your business strategy

From any perspective, understanding how prospective customers, members or donors are likely to answer, “What’s in it for me?” is fundamental to owning your space. And this understanding has to be factored into your overall business strategy.


According to management guru Peter Drucker, a business has one purpose: To create, and keep, a customer. We believe that corporate planners – business, marketing, brand – have one essential job: to map out a path to creating customers, and owning a market position that is meaningful and defensible.