What (or who) is your value?

I’ve had a half-dozen conversations lately with companies that want to answer the question, What Would Google Do? I start by asking where they think their company’s value is. One key answer is usually left out. It’s about who your real value is. And that’s often not just your staff and leaders but your customers, your public, your crowd. What they know has great and too-often unrecognized value.

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of a torturous string of travel, I visited the indefatigable Jeffrey Gitomer, who sells untold thousands of books and seminar tickets about successful selling. G’bless him, Jeffrey was the first to call and tell me that he liked my book and that he wanted to inject some of its ideas and rules into his business: the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the opening of a fascinating laboratory.

I went to Charlotte to spend time with Jeffrey and his staff in one of the many lofts from which he operates and lives. I started by asking them where their value was. Their answers included Jeffrey himself, their content, their brand and reputation, their infrastructure. All those answers were right. But there was one more I thought they’d left out: the value of Gitomer’s customers and what they know. They are salespeople who have their own tips for success, solutions to problems, experience with techniques, and more. It wasn’t hard for Jeffrey’s staff to agree with that.

What does that mean for the business – especially if they try to live by one of the key WWGD? principles: succeeding by building platforms that enable others to succeed? The staff started brainstorming about the ways they could enable their customers to build and succeed. Perhaps they could enable the best of them to become authors and speakers themselves. Perhaps the best presentation makers could make businesses sharing their skills. Maybe within Gitomer’s corp of customers are stars ready to be recognized. The discussion continued and I’ll fill you in on what happens as Gitomer’s staff continues to meet weekly on their transformation. But that’s the start.

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When I was in Amsterdam, Maurits Martijn, an editor from an established and respected – but shrinking – magazine called Vrij Nederland decided to turn our interview about the debut of the Dutch WWGD? (aka WZGD?) into a free consultation for the magazine: what should it do? (Here’s a Google translation.) I started by asking them to imagine a day after print so they could ask what their real value is.

The magazine then started a blog and asked its readers where they thought Vrij Nederland’s real value lay if not on paper. (Google translation here.) One commenter replies that the magazine owes its existence to its readers and they must feel at home with it. I like that. Another said (if Google translates correctly) that the initiative itself made him go buy the magazine because, I infer, it showed a new openness.

Maurits emailed me: “Well, Jeff, what happened is quite amazing. There is a lot of covering here in Holland. Not just in the bloogosphere and on Twitter, but also in a big Dutch magazine and on the radio. It is great. Al kind of new media experts are writing quite interesting and extensive ‘advises’ and a discussion is going on as well. We are a little bit flabbergasted: we are only online for 30 hours!” He offered up the magazine as a lab (the name of their blog): “As a case to think about the future of magazines.”

Maurits promises to keep us up to date on the ideas and what the magazine does with them. Note well that the ideas are coming from the readers, now partners.

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Then this week, I had coffee with TR Reid, Dell’s new vp of corporate communication. He was in Asia for the company during Dell Hell and came unarmed. It was fascinating listening to him talk about how to extend Dell’s success with blogging past a blogging team and into the culture of the company.

Then I asked about extending it even farther: Would Dell deputize customers to also speak for it? They already do, supporting each other in technical forums. I asked when researching the book whether Dell could set some of them up in their own support businesses. How could Dell act as a platform for them to build and succeed? TR started brainstorming about ways to enable and empower independent bloggers. What could Dell offer them? I asked. It could give them information, promotion (i.e., respect), ad revenue, and more.

Going too far, as is my habit, I wondered whether Dell could even enable other technology companies to start. Should it compete with Amazon and Google in web services (don’t buy the computer, buy the power). Should it manufacture the TechCrunch Tablet?

The point remains: Any company’s unrecognized and untapped value is the crowd around it: its knowledge, its effort, its willingness to invest time, effort, and money. Google recognized that value. How can every company, from publisher to manufacturer?