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This is a highly readable, quite enjoyable, and very insightful book about all aspects of service marketing. Harry Beckwith is the founder of a marketing and advertising company located in Minneapolis, and has advised several Fortune 500 companies, as well as many small and medium-sized service-oriented businesses.

Beckwith’s style is to present essentially mini-essays ranging from half a page to maybe a couple of pages. These deal with different topics having to do with the selling of services to clients who often don’t quite know what they are getting into. The language is simple, straightforward and often irreverent, but each little piece contains a nugget of marketing truth.

A key point that Beckwith makes is that selling services is fundamentally different from selling products. When a customer buys a product that he or she is happy with, the physical existence of that product acts as a constant reminder of how satisfied they are, and what a good choice they made. Think of someone who has bought a luxury car – every time they see the automobile sitting in their garage they are satisfied, every time they hear that comforting clunk of the car door they are reassured, and every time they start the motor they think what a good choice they have made.

In contrast, services are invisible, and they don’t , therefore, ct as a constant positive reminder to the customer in this way. Beckwith makes the point that many purchasers of services aren’t even sure what it is that they are buying, since it hasn’t typically been delivered yet. Clients typically cannot evaluate expertise (which is what service marketers are selling), since they lack the technical skills with which to evaluate the expert. In most cases, they cannot tell whether a doctor’s diagnosis was correct, whether a tax return was filed properly, or whether a marketing plan was crafted well. Accordingly the customer’s motivation may be as much or more risk avoidance (i.e. minimising the consequences of a bad decision) than trying to get the very best service that might be available. Good service marketers will understand this and try to provide assurance that there will not be problems.

Most service marketers suffer from what Beckwith calls the ‘Lake Wobegon effect’ – that is, overestimating themselves, and assuming that the market shares their perception. (This is named after Garrison Keillor’s radio show sign-off from the fictional Lake Wobegon, where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are all above average”.)

Another implication of services being invisible is that what service providers are really selling is a relationship – one that needs constant attention and nurturing if the client is to be retained. And Beckwith provides plenty of advice on how to do this – as well as many other observations along the way that may be useful to the marketer.

Even if you sell a physical product (e.g. software or shoes), you are likely to be competing on service (through customisation, delivery, support etc.). Effective services marketing is more about how you think than what you do.

Getting the Fundamentals Right.

Before you start marketing your services, there are some fundamentals that you’d want to first get in place, and we’ll be touching on them briefly here:

  1. Fix your service first. We tend to think we are better than we are – it is better to assume your service is bad, and to benchmark across industries, so you force yourself to improve.
  1. Get the right focus. Always start at zero, sweat the small stuff, and keep asking “is this still what the customers want?”.
  1. Understand the stages of service evolution, so you can focus on getting to Stage 3 (where you make the leap to go beyond customers’ expressed needs and expectations).

Surveying and Research.

Why survey? Because people won’t tell you what you are doing wrong – not even your best friends. The only way to find out is to ask. In the book, Beckwith covers tips for surveying and research, including using third-party surveys, oral surveys, and phone interviews.

  • Always have a third party conduct quality satisfaction surveys.
  • Beware of written surveys; it’s far better to conduct oral surveys, as you have a chance to clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Beware of focus groups – they often reveal more about group dynamics than about how individuals think.

Marketing is Not a Department.

Beckwith elaborates on how marketing needs be an integral part of the entire organization, and offer specific tips on how you can cultivate a marketing mindset  (rather than have a marketing department).

Every act is a marketing act.

  1. Make every employee a marketing employee. “In most professional services, you are not really selling expertise – because your expertise is assumed, and because your prospect cannot intelligently evaluate your expertise anyway. Instead you are selling a relationship.”
  2. Before you try to satisfy “the client”, understand and satisfy the person.
  3. Often, your client will face the choice of having you perform the service, or doing it themselves. Therefore, often your biggest competitors are your prospects.
  4. Make technology a key part of every marketing plan.
  5. Study each point of contact with your client – your receptionist, your business card, the building, your brochure, your website, your invoices.

Then improve each one significantly. Be professional – but, more importantly, be personable.

Overcoming Planning Fallacies.

Executives may get lost trying to develop and follow a business or marketing plan. Beckwith highlights several planning fallacies which are critical in your marketing success.

You’ll never know the future, so don’t assume that you should. Plan for several possible futures.  We don’t always know what we want. You can get to your “desired destination”, only to realise it’s not what you really want. Therefore:-

– Accept the limitations of planning

– Value planning for the process of thinking, not the results

– Don’t plan your future. Plan your people

In successful companies, tactics drive strategy as much or more than strategy drives tactics. Do anything.  Execute passionately. Marginal tactics executed passionately almost always outperform brilliant tactics executed marginally.

  • Do it now. The business obituary pages are filled with planners who waited. Inaction breeds more inaction: keep moving to succeed.
  • Don’t let perfect ruin good. – Stop trying to build a better mousetrap. Perfect ideas don’t work as well as imperfect ideas delivered passionately.  There’s no perfect solution nor perfect timing. Implement a good idea now. Don’t procrastinate, don’t wait.
  • No research or “facts” can accurately calculate and predict human behaviour. Don’t rely on science & data for decisions.

Finally have a healthy distrust of what experience has taught you.

Now that we have established the important fundamentals behind marketing and planning, we’ll take a look at the specifics of branding, positioning, communications, pricing, client relationships etc.

How Prospects Think.

To sell your services effectively, you need to first understand how your prospects think, and here are 4 (out of the many) tips in the book.

  • People tend to make decisions based on the most recent data. Get good at your follow up, and/or build on competitors’ communications – say something stronger and more effective to secure the business. Leverage on the Recency Effect.
  • People don’t usually evaluate all possible options to make the best choice. They just want to avoid making a bad choice. Show that you are “good enough” – present yourself as good choice, then eliminate all possible concerns that could make you a bad choice.
  • Show your weaknesses alongside your strengths, as they make you more believable, honest and trustworthy.
  • The best thing you can do for a prospect is eliminate their fear. Offer a trial period or test project.

Positioning and Focus.

We’ve all heard of brand positioning and business focus.  How do we apply that in practice? Here’s an outline of two powerful ideas from the book.

  • Focus on ONE Thing: No two services are identical – Focus on ONE distinct thing that will give you a competitive advantage, and position that in your prospect’s mind.
  • The Halo Effect: Standing for one thing doesn’t mean you will lose all other appeal, because people will associate that one thing with many other things. Position yourself as the expert at the hardest task in your service. That special skill should imply you also possess other valuable skills, and position you strongly in other areas.

In the book, Beckwith also shares 6 questions that you can ask to establish a clear positioning statement and how to close the gap between your position and positioning statement.

  1. Who: Who are you?
  2. What: What business are you in?
  3. For Whom: What people do you serve?
  4. Against Whom: With whom are you competing?
  5. What’s different: What makes you different from those competitors?
  6. So: What’s the benefit? What unique benefit does a client derive from your service?

Choose a position that will reposition your competitors; then move a step back toward the middle that will cinch the sale. In positioning, don’t try to hide your small size. Make it work by stressing its advantages such as responsiveness and individual attention.

Pricing.

Pricing is one of the key components of marketing. Setting your price is like setting a screw: a little resistance is a good sign.   What are some of the pitfalls and considerations to get the right price-point? We’ll take a quick look at the key of points Beckwith makes:-

  • Apply the resistance principle: If no one complains about your price, it’s too low. If almost everyone complains, it’s too high.
  • Beware the deadly middle. If you price in the middle, what you are saying is “We’re not the best, and neither is our price, but both our service and price are pretty good.” Not a very compelling message.
  • The low-cost trap: Low prices and good value are not in themselves a positioning – there are almost always a way to beat that price. Focus on improving your service instead.
  • Don’t charge by the hour. Charge by the years (of experience).
  • In services, value is a given. And givens are not viable competitive positions. If good value is your best position, improve your service.

Naming and Branding.

A well-built brand has value. It makes selling easier, faster and cheaper, and is used by customers as a tool for decision-making in our “microwave world”.  When considering your name and brand, here are some points to remember:-

  • Your name should carry unique, specific, sensory information. Give your service a name, not a monogram.
  • Represent your product, not a generic business category.
  • Don’t use words that describe what everyone already expects (e.g. “creative”, “quality”).
  • The name should imply the service it’s intended to serve, and should be unique and sensory.
  • Use the “Information-per-Inch Test” to see how much valuable information you are packing into your name. Use colour effectively. Using “Federal Express” as a benchmark, look at what your name and colours are communicating.

A service is a promise, and building a brand builds a promise. Invest in and religiously build, integrity. It is the heart of your brand.

Give your prospects a shortcut. Give them a brand.

Communicating & Selling / Nurturing & keeping Clients.

Beckwith also covers numerous tips on communication and selling, as well as nurturing and keeping clients. Here’s a sneak peak at a couple of the tips:-

  • Communication: People can only process one message at a time. When you say too much, you communicate nothing. Say just one thing, then repeat it again and again.
  • Relationship accounting. Most service firms start the relationship with their clients on a deficit – the client has taken a risk to engage the firm, and expects the services to be delivered. Manage your relationship balance sheet, and assume it is worse than it seems.

Final Word

And there you have it. This is a basic overview of “Selling the Invisible”. If you start to think about what Beckwith says, that just about everything we sell is a service in reality, then using the concepts in this book will provide a competitive advantage. For those businesses that are purely service oriented then following methodology in this book is an absolute must. To get the most out of this summary go and buy the book on Amazon I highly recommend it.

Buy on Amazon