This is the guiding question for your service business or personal brand

guiding question

The guiding question

By Keith Reynold Jennings, {grow} Contributing Columnist

In an effort to engage a group of high-energy kids, a church teacher threw out this question:

“If you had to live on a deserted island for a year, and you could bring one thing with you, what would you choose to bring?”

After some murmuring, one of the kids said, “Well, I know I’m supposed to say the Bible, but I’d rather bring Bear Grylls.”

This funny vignette tees up a question that’s transformed the way I look at service businesses, as well as personal brands.

As service buyers, in each situation we encounter, we either need an expert, guide, or agent to help us along. As service providers, we must get clarity on which one we are best positioned to offer.

The guiding question I want to help you explore is this: “Are you an expert, guide, or agent?”

How you answer and leverage this question can greatly benefit your service business and/or personal brand.

The Difference Between Experts, Guides, and Agents

A few weeks ago, an author/coach I respect announced the re-opening of her intensive course that teaches participants how to become recognized experts in their field.

Now, to be clear, she is a recognized expert on personal branding. She runs a lucrative coaching business. And she’s a terrific human being.

But it prompted me to wonder, “Is being a recognized expert the only/best option for a person or business?”

This guiding question made me realize that people don’t typically come to me for expertise. They come to me for guidance.

Some freelancers I know are neither experts nor guides. They’re just really good at what they do — selling, designing, developing, etc.

An expert is someone who knows a lot about a specific subject. A guide is someone who knows how to find the way by synthesizing multiple areas of expertise. And an agent is someone who acts on behalf of someone else.

Let’s break this guiding question down in a way that’s easy to grasp and remember:

  • An expert knows — an expert provides subject matter know-how
  • A guide shows — a guide provides situational navigation
  • An agent sows — an agent provides increased scale and scope

These require distinct skillsets.

Consider this. All businesses need tax work. Some need CFO-level guidance. Some need controller-level expertise. And some need accountant-level agents.

Of course, some need all three … and often hire different people to fill those roles.

Get Clarity on Which Job is Needed

We hire everything in our lives to get specific jobs done. Sometimes those jobs are functional. Sometimes they are emotional. And sometimes they are relational. Of course, sometimes a job embodies all three.

Expertise, guidance, and agency are distinct jobs people need to be done. Consider these scenarios:

  • Your business has just been publicly accused of discrimination. What you most need is an expert to audit your business practices and provide you with clear, benchmarked feedback on where and how you can improve.
  • Your business and its competitors work in a market that’s valued personalized, white-glove service for decades. Now, all of you are losing market share to technology providers using bots and charging a fourth of what you charge. In this case, you need a seasoned guide to help you identify the macro and micro trends in play and synthesize multiple areas of expertise into an adaptive plan that can navigate you through change.
  • Your business is struggling to stand out and build engagement through digital media. You know exactly what needs to be done, so you don’t need expertise or guidance. You need someone who can actually do the work for you to scale-up your productivity and/or expand your scope. You need an agent, as either a contractor or new hire.

This guiding question has helped me get unstuck recently.

I’ve been struggling with a podcast series I’m developing because I’ve been producing each episode through the lens of an expert.

But I’m not an expert. I’m a guide. I don’t want to be some guru. I want to be like Anthony Bourdain, albeit way less cool!

So I abandoned everything I was working on and started from scratch scripting each episode through the lens of a guide. And things are humming along beautifully.

The takeaway for you is this: Get clarity on which of these three jobs is needed by the people you serve.

It will save you and them from a lot of headaches. So let’s address those headaches.

Tensions and Turnover are Tied to Lack of Clarity

Kimberly A. Whitler, a former CMO who is now teaches at the University of Virginia, provided revealing research into why CMO’s have the lowest tenure and highest turnover in the C-Suite. The root problem is faulty role design. Consider this:

  • The range of possible marketing skills are vast — there’s no such thing as one kind of marketer
  • No two people give the same answer to the question, “What does a CMO do?”
  • CMO roles are rarely aligned with their responsibilities, resources, and performance metrics

CEOs expect a lot of their CMOs, yet many don’t give them any real authority to drive the metrics they’re being held accountable for. Frustration and tension build up until the CMO leaves or is asked to leave.

This phenomenon doesn’t stop at the C-level. I see it play out among marketing staff at all levels, as well as the consultants, contractors, and agencies they partner with.

Three examples:

  1. A creative agency sees itself as a guide on digital marketing. As soon as they win the contract, they start trying to educate and consult. But the client never wanted a guide. They simply want an agent to build the website as fast as possible.
  2. A freelance writer can do the work better and faster than her clients. But she gets sucked into advising a client. Sure, she’s getting paid, but she could have taken on three new clients and doubled her revenue in the time she’s spending with this client. She’s an agent being asked to be a guide (with agent pricing).
  3. A digital marketing specialist (agent) wants a promotion into a new role the organization sees as a guide. She’s passed over, never made aware of the role mismatch, and winds up leaving within months with a bad taste in her mouth.

The Guiding Question: Are You an Expert, Guide, or Agent?

Your prospective clients are making moment-by-moment decisions between service providers based on whether they can tell them what to do (expert), show them how to do it (guide) or do it for them (agent).

When you look at your website, which job is it projecting?

Is that narrative aligned with the job you are best positioned to help others do?

Even if you think you can provide expertise and guidance, I recommend choosing one as your primary focus and make the other secondary. Look no further than Bear Grylls.

Bear is a survival expert. But what distinguishes him is his ability to guide others through extreme survival scenarios. He’s known and sought out as a guide.

That’s why, like that boy in church, if I had to spend a year on a deserted island, I’d want to bring Bear with me. Not for his expertise. But for his ability to help me navigate the situations I’d be facing.

Similarly, Mark Schaefer is one of the best guides I’ve ever met. It’s why his books read like adventures, rather than know-it-all blather.

What about you? How do answer this guiding question?

Why should I follow you?

Why should I connect with you?

Why should I hire you?

Are you someone who knows, shows, or sows?

Keith Reynold Jennings serves as vice president of community impact for Jackson Healthcare. He writes and speaks at the intersection of values, impact, and identity. Connect with Keith via Linkedin and his monthly newsletter.

Illustration courtesy


All posts

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast!

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details