Vulnerability plays an important role in expertise-driven businesses.
Expertise is often — and rightly — framed as a source of power in the services business. So how does the notion of vulnerability — which seems to be dripping with weakness — coexist with the notion of power? Let’s find out!
What is vulnerability?
As humans, we’re all actually experts on vulnerability, whether we know it or not. While the primary drive — for most of us, anyway — is to overcome vulnerability, we’re born into vulnerability and most of us die after some period of intense vulnerability.
Almost all of us experience the involuntary vulnerability of being an infant, of being elderly, and of being ill.
And then there’s voluntary vulnerability, which is my focus today. Voluntary vulnerability is a tool for getting things done in life and business. I know that’s a sort of blunt way to describe something that feels dark and sticky and complex, but voluntary vulnerability is at the end of the day a powerful tool.
Voluntary vulnerability is choosing to embrace weakness or fragility or powerlessness for a period of time in order to achieve some desirable outcome. If this is done out of a desire to manipulate, it’s a confidence scheme; done out of a healthy desire, it’s a positive, powerful tool.
You can see the seeming contradiction here: using powerlessness in a powerful way.
Vulnerability and learning
At a fundamental level, without a willingness to be vulnerable, we’d never learn! We’d never embrace even the common powerlessness of not-knowing, and therefore we’d never move into learning.
I mean, it would require a cartoonish level of unwillingness to be vulnerable to absolutely resist learning, but I suppose it could exist. Certain places on the political spectrum and in social media expressions do seem to approach this cartoonish level of un-vulnerability.
At a more realistic level of un-vulnerability, you’ll find learning to be possible, but restricted. From my own life, I have plenty of examples of this:
Compromise with my wife often leads to a better result than I’d be able to reach on my own. I know this sounds like a cheesy kumbaya relationship trope, and that’s exactly why I resist the compromise in the first place! How could a compromise solution be better than the perfect “Athena” of a solution born from my own forehead? It takes an embrace of vulnerability for me to get the better solutions that come from compromise.
The most empowering method of learning for me is 100% individual, self-directed learning. For most of my life, this has looked like reading and experimentation. These are things I can do largely on my own, and that’s what makes me feel empowered in this learning mode: I don’t need no help from nobody! But this means that I’m placing some very, very powerful learning tools beyond the pale. Many forms of research require recruiting the help of others. Mentorship and training often work better in realtime group situations. If I stick rigidly to my preference for individual, self-directed learning, I lose out on these other powerful forms of learning. If I embrace the vulnerability of being uncomfortable in a group setting, I get access to these powerful forms of learning.
Problem-solving with vulnerability
Vulnerability is an impressive problem-solving tool.
My dysfunctional tendency in client work has been to create problems by projecting excessive competence. This shows up in three specific ways:
Rushing through the sales process (for custom projects, not for productized services).
Acting as if learning more from my client after the discovery phase is an imposition on them and an erosion of my authority.
Trying to solve problems during a project completely on my own.
Yes, your client hired an expert. Yes, they hired a professional who does good work even on a bad day.
And yes, despite all that, you can ask for help. In fact, you can embrace weakness or fragility or powerlessness for a period of time in order to solve a problem with or for your client.
I’ll go so far as to say that, if you adopt a long-term view, you can never cause any damage by putting your client’s interest first.1 You may feel a temporary conflict between your interest and your client’s interest, and that’s why vulnerability — rather than aggression or defensiveness — is exactly the tool you need to resolve that tension. Only a conscious embrace of vulnerability will allow you to resolve this kind of tension.
Here’s the universal conversation starter for this situation: “I’m concerned about the outcome we’re working towards on this project because [difficult situation you’d like to work with your client to problem-solve on]. Can we figure out how to fix this?”
Connecting with vulnerability
Vulnerability is a useful outreach tool, especially during research, validation, or bootstrapping phases.
If you’re doing research to help you decide how to specialize or refine a value proposition, the absolute best way to open doors is to lead with a description of your learning mission and a humble, honest request for help with that mission.
This looks like an email or LinkedIn request worded like this: “I’m trying to learn about $THING and could use your help with [way this person could help you, like by granting you an interview, etc.].”
During the bootstrapping phase of your business or a new service, you might use outbound marketing. I’ve always felt a tension between outbound methods and the signal that we want an
expertise-driven services business to send. The signal we want to send — in its most amplified form — is: “My expertise is so self-evidently valuable that I have prospective clients beating down my door, and I’m so profitably serving them that I wouldn’t even think to use outbound methods, nor would I even have time to.” So does using outbound methods send the signal that your expertise is not self-evidently valuable, or does it send the signal that you do not have prospects beating down your door?
Like I said, this is a tension for me. My friend and podcast partner Liston Witherill has done his best to convince me — with mixed results — that paying for attention or using outbound methods (unsolicited email, outbound marketing on LinkedIn of the sort that Lead Cookie does) does not send a signal about un-valuable expertise. And I think he’s basically correct, but I also think it’s complicated because precisely how you do the outbound has a huge effect on the signal it sends, and it’s easy to do it in a way that sends the wrong signal.
The more established self-made experts I interview, the more I learn that they all go through a bootstrapping phase (one they don’t talk much about later in their career), and the client acquisition methods they use during that phase are different than the methods they use once they become more established. This partially resolves the above tension for me. I should elaborate on this more later, but in general, the transition looks like:
Direct response marketing -> brand marketing (but still with surgical use of direct response methods)
Use of lead gen approaches that do not rely on “being everywhere” (paid advertising, outbound marketing, etc.) -> saturating a market with your impactful, differentiated thinking and watching the leads roll in via website contact form or direct email
Expertise vs. vulnerability
The major concern with vulnerability follows the contours of the tension I outlined above. We might express this as a question:
“But what about expertise vs vulnerability? Isn’t that power vs. weakness? Isn’t that value vs. lack of value?!!”
Any time we forget the fourth dimension, we make a huge error in our thinking. The fourth dimension is time. Any time we neglect the impact of time on anything, we make a mistake.
Remember, vulnerability is choosing to embrace weakness or fragility or powerlessness for a period of time in order to achieve some desirable outcome. It’s not a permanent condition. You’re not “stuck” being weak or fragile or powerlessness. Instead, you’re using that condition to get something that’s good for both you and your client. If you can keep the following two things in mind, you’ll be able to make vulnerability coexist with power and value: 1) your usage of vulnerability now to 2) contribute to the health of a relationship that may span years or decades.
Marketing, as you’ll recall, is connecting and building trust. Vulnerability is a useful — and occasionally vital — enabler of every part of the process of connecting and building trust.
Vulnerability is also an occasionally vital part of working effectively with the clients you’ve connected with, built trust with, and are now working with.
One of the themes around here is: “Go first”, which could be expanded to “Make the first move.” These ways of using vulnerability are built around this theme of going first:
“I’m concerned about the outcome we’re working towards on this project because [difficult situation you’d like to work with your client to problem-solve on].”
“I’m trying to learn about $THING and could use your help with [way this person could help you, like by granting you an interview, etc.].”
“I’m pretty sure I missed something here. Can you help me understand $THING?”
“I screwed up. I want to fix this, and could really use your help with $THING.”
The following are excellent additional reading on this topic:
“Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty”, by Patrick Lencioni
“Never Split the Difference”, by Chris Voss
“Start with NO”, by Jim Camp (avoid the Kindle version, get the hardcover version because it’s better written)
My primary assumption here is that your client is not a psycho/sociopath, nor are they acting under the overwhelming influence of perverse incentives. ↩