Whenever I tell new coaching clients that I want to start off by having a look at their "big picture," they always seem a bit relieved. Perhaps that's because, like many small-business owners, they tend to get caught up in the details. In the case of marketing, that may mean anything from interviewing copywriters for an upcoming online campaign to negotiating the best price from local printers for a new brochure.

No matter whether your small business has been around for years or you're trying to bring a startup into high gear, it's vital to periodically step away from the daily details and look at the larger canvas. Generally, it's not the single tactics that will make or break you-it's the broad-based thinking that will have a profound impact on your ability to increase sales.

Adopting this larger point-of-view will help you more effectively position your business, pinpoint and motivate your best prospects, and develop your own unique value proposition. And it's as easy as answering these three questions:

1. What are you really marketing? (It's not what you think.) You may be tempted to answer this question by naming the product or service you offer-shoes, software, commercial landscaping, image consulting, tax prepraration or whatever it is you provide. But when it comes to motivating customers or clients, what you really should be marketing are the benefits they'll enjoy by using your product or service. For example, while your actual product may be software, to be successful, you must market what that software helps users do.

Customers who read your ads and brochures or take your cold calls have only one question in mind, "What's in it for me?" And no marketing message can succeed unless it leads with the benefits that your customers can expect. The key to effectively positioning your business or its products and services is to define a unique set of benefits and then build a communications message around them.

2. Who wants to buy what you market? Have you ever noticed how major manufacturers offer products uniquely tailored to niche markets? Canon, for instance, may offer a line of inkjet printers for small to mid-sized businesses as well as tiny portable printers that can work on the front seat of a salesperson's car-two very different products created specifically to appeal to select target audiences.

Is there something uniquely distinct about your products and services (or even the way you offer them) that makes them particularly appealing to a specific group or market niche? Create a profile of your best prospects and tailor your offering accordingly. If you can't increase your share of your current market, perhaps you can modify your product to go after a new one. Consider how, with a simple change of packaging, for example, mainstream food products are sold to ethnic markets. How can your company apply this type of strategy to attract a more targeted customer?

3. Why will the customers you target want to buy from you? Let's face it, consumers have endless options when it comes to buying almost any kind of product or service. In fact, if you think you have no competition, it's likely that while you're educating the market on the benefits of your product, there are others just a few steps behind you. (You may own the category for now, but we all know that it's often easier, and less expensive, to be second to bring something truly innovative to market.)

Be certain to eliminate any elements that reduce your competitive edge. Last night, for example, I was shopping online for lamp finials and came across a beautiful pair made out of carved jade. I went straight to the shopping cart but stopped the transaction when I saw that the seller tacked on an additional, high-priced "handling fee" plus shipping. This e-commerce site had a unique and desirable product, yet they lost the sale because of their non-competitive pricing structure. So all they got from me was an e-mail with some terse marketing advice.

Once you've answered my first two questions, you're ready to take the final step and formulate a compelling value proposition that trumps the offers made by your competitors. What do your customers really want? How can you provide it? Sometimes the answer can be as simple as offering something that seals the deal, such as free shipping. Last holiday season, this was the major closing tactic used to great advantage by many online marketers.

For marketing success, it's a smart idea to make a habit of looking at the big picture. There couldn't be a better prescription for your business and its long-term growth.