With employees working in groups or teams, large companies have a greater challenge in ensuring their voice communicates one message rather than several from different business units. They need to avoid sending mixed messages.

This week's dilemma asks your advice on sending one cohesive message—how does your company communicate that it's all for one and one for all? How does a company ensure its communications present one voice?

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This Week's Dilemma

Presenting one voice to different markets

My company is technology based and over the years has developed into three distinct business units: enterprise interoperability software products, portable device engineering services, and wireless device software products. We market to a wide range of target customers. I am sure this is a problem for many large companies. How do we create and ensure a consistent corporate message that encompasses all of our businesses?

—David Warkentin, VP Sales Marketing, Intrinsyc Software

Previous Dilemma

Marketing the invisible: services

Our business is a service, and it's harder to sell something you can't see. We've collected testimonials from satisfied clients, but that is not enough. How do we convince prospects of the benefits or results that will come from our services? How do we market services?

—Lynn, Principal

Summary of Advice Received

Ashleigh Young, marketing director, explains the challenge of selling intangibles:

Having been involved with services marketing for the better part of my career, I know from experience that the marketing of intangibles is perhaps the most difficult thing to do due to the experiential nature of service offerings.

The customer has little ability to assess your product offering prior to his/her purchase, which makes it extremely difficult for the customer to choose a supplier, as they will only find out if it was the right supplier after the service was delivered.

Though it's challenging, Lynn, readers have provided many ideas to help with your sales process. They take six approaches:

  1. Demonstrate the value of your services. 
  2. List the benefits for the customer. 
  3. Show rather than tell. 
  4. Offer a service guarantee. 
  5. Sell the solution and the company. 
  6. Obtain appropriate testimonials.

1. Demonstrate the value of your services

A reader points out that the key to marketing any offering (product or service) is to communicate the value that your offering will provide a prospective client:

Value is generated by impacting one, or more, of the key drivers of economic value:

  1. Revenue growth
  2. Cost reduction
  3. Working capital improvement
  4. Asset utilization
  5. Risk
  6. Timing of benefits and costs

Other sources of value include non-tangible factors such as image, status and emotional connection. The key to effectively marketing a service is to communicate how your service impacts the key drivers of value. Does your service help increase revenues? Reduce costs? Reduce risk? Reduce the time to benefit? While client testimonials can be valuable, it's very important to provide quantitative proof of the benefits of your service.

Businesses offering professional services typically provide knowledge. Knowledge and expertise are difficult to sell because it's tough to measure value. Tony Wanless, principal with KnowPreneur Consultants, doesn't believe in using the same methods for selling soap as for selling intangible expertise such as engineering skills or creative abilities:

Most knowledge businesses still use old-fashioned (advertising-oriented) b-school methods that were developed for the manufacturing-sales-distribution world. The result is that marketing of knowledge business often falls flat: It's the wrong methodology for the wrong "product." This rarely works.

Instead, offer prospective clients some way to measure value:

  1. Reinforce the "'try before you buy" principle: Give prospects a little free useful advice as a teaser. If they find it worthwhile, they'll come back for more.

  2. Identify the problem: The basis of all services is problem solving. If prospects didn't have problems, they wouldn't be seeking your service. But, often, prospects don't quite know what their problems are. So help them articulate a problem before selling them a service to fix it.

  3. Help establish proper objectives: Many prospects also operate service businesses that often present a business-planning problem. A client who makes widgets knows exactly what her objective is: to make and sell XX number of widgets. But a client who runs another service business often has murkier objectives, such as "make money" or "increase sales." Those are not objectives, they are directions. First, show your prospect how to set proper and achievable objectives. Then piggyback on that with other services.

  4. Commoditize your expertise: Most prospects are used to consumer-style systems or products and are wary of some kind of service where the meter is constantly ticking, but the result isn't very clear. So find some way to make your service into an understandable commodity, i.e., a "30-day plan to improve sales by 30 percent" or "a proven plan to cut your costs by 25 percent."

  5. Use expertise marketing: Your business is all about your expertise and client trust in that expertise, so use viral marketing to market it heavily. Essentially, expertise marketing (commonly used by writers of business books, for example) involves making yourself the recognized and trusted expert in some field.
    Do this by speaking on your particular subject at every function that will have you, by staging seminars, by frequently writing in publications that serve your target market, by offering your expert comments to the general press (for branding purposes, not ego), by linking with Web sites that also offer advice, by attending gatherings also attended by target prospects and freely offering (useful) advice tidbits, and by having current clients talk you up all over the place—it's called referral, and it's more valuable than any other marketing method. Just ask them—you'll be amazed at how willing they are to do it. If they aren't, then they're not happy with your service, and you have another, bigger, problem.

By using all these methods at the same time, you will build a critical mass of trust in the marketplace that lets prospects know you are the go-to firm in terms of your service specialty.

2. List the benefits for the customer

Marcus Barber offers a different perspective—ALL sales are made on the basis of "intangibles":

Even when you sell someone a house, he isn't buying the house but what he perceives will be the benefits (an intangible) of that purchase. When someone buys a 1/8-inch drill bit, she isn't buying a drill bit, she is buying an intangible of what she hopes that drill bit will deliver, which is a 1/8-inch hole.

Selling radio-advertising time is one of the best examples of selling an intangible. Selling time! So the first thing to focus on will be the actual benefits of what your product delivers. Regardless of an offering being an intangible (service) or a tangible (product), both forms rely on a clear understanding by the company of what benefits the customer gets from the purchase. If you are having difficulties, I suspect it is because you are not articulating to prospects exactly what it is they will get.

Mark Terpstra, marketing strategist with Cull Group, indicates there are two things you can make tangible:

    1. Payoff: Quantify the payoff of your service in a way that is meaningful to the buyer (and be as specific as possible—using facts and figures).

    2. Process: Demonstrate the step-by-step process you follow to achieve the payoff (depict the process in a diagram, if possible).

John Mead, owner of ACT, recommends to forget selling the service and instead sell the solution:

It sounds like a cliché, but think about it. It's a lot easier finding people with problems that need fixing than people who have already identified that they need a solution like yours. Once you have done that, then the testimonials become very useful in separating yourself from you competitors.

Yaman Ogut, CEO of Fidelo, offers two methods of defining the benefits—the pitch and research:

  1. The pitch: my favorite shortcut is to focus on the "wow factor," and most of the time it is the intangibles that deliver the wow in people—the fancy chocolate on the pillow and complimentary designer cosmetics. Focus on the "unexpected" benefits from the services you are selling. By the way, those receiving the benefits may not be the people paying for them (makes the sale tougher), but this only gives you more of a leeway to your pitch and extends to my second point.

  2. Research: you've heard it many times, research and share the findings in a manner most beneficial to you. Remember "truth well told," a motto of a global ad company. Develop your research with a research company. Tell them what you want from the research and how you will use the results. The research base will obviously be your current client base and perhaps some target customers who are prospects. You will seek the benefits achieved by your new clients and focus on these in your marcom efforts.

Note: the research may include the executives in your client base, your clients' customers and your clients' other partners who may have benefited from your clients' decision to purchase your offering. Try tying the research in with a leading trade publication and have them feature it. As these are scientifically valid findings, milk every drop of PR from them.

3. Show rather than tell

You've heard the advice: "Show, don't tell." It applies here, according to one reader who says, "Show, by using outcome statements, benefit statements and more, for your customers or members."

Another reader says to show the prospects the end result:

Show people working in their chosen profession: actions speak louder than words. I think of the Canadian Tire ads—they do not showcase the product, they show the consumer the benefits of the product. The same can be accomplished for service industries. I am working in a college setting, and that is one of the main drivers—showing what the students could do if they enrolled in our program.

4. Offer a service guarantee

TV ads during non-prime time often state, "Money-back guaranteed!" It sounds cheesy, but it works. Damien Parker, director at Business Publications Australia, explains:

Without doubt, the best way to sell an intangible is to offer a guarantee that is so strong that the prospect says, "What have I got to lose?" A conditional money back guarantee that is heavy of exclusions isn't worth considering. The guarantee has to say, "I believe in my service so strongly that I am prepared to spill blood for it, so that you don't even have to worry at all."

Jason Mosakowski, solutions manager with IBM, suggests to consider offering clients alternatives to reduce their risk in using your service:

For example, you could offer shared risk/reward price options. Another approach is to offer a "try before you buy" offering. Again, the net result is to reduce prospective clients' perception of the possible risks of using your service. I could expand into more details on these broad concepts, but I hope my response helps expand your thinking on how to best market services.

5. Sell the solution and the company

Martin Akinola, general manager at TCC Ogere, addresses solutions, touch points and benefits:

    1. Your core marketing message should include the problem your services solve, rather than show off the benefits.

    2. Your marketing touchpoints, your business environment, your letterheads and your Web page must be in consonance with your customer benefits.

    3. Your organization must show and prove that it truly "loves" the customer in your organization/customer interface.

Take a holistic approach to succeed in services marketing, suggests Ashleigh Young:

As a marketer, you need to ensure that customers have a positive perception of your company. This requires that not only are they comfortable with the service company's brand, but also that they have positive perceptions of the company itself. You need to position the company as the industry expert. This requires a lot of creative marketing effort such as ensuring the company is involved in the industry's representative body (credibility); that the company is seen to be the industry leader/spokesperson (through PR and editorial commentary); as well as a fair amount of brand exposure. However, all these efforts can be undone in an instant by poor service delivery resulting in a poor service experience by your customer. Therefore, it is critical that a service company ensures that their service delivery exceeds their marketing promise.

Internal marketing of your company to your staff is almost as important. Your staff should represent your company in all their actions and should be "walking ads" for the company in both word and deed. This requires a huge effort and a strong value set that guides employee behavior. Testimonials, while important, merely serve to provide a prospect with some level of comfort that their selection of the service provider is the right one and should only be used to support the marketing effort, not drive it. Remember to resell your company. If the service is finite, like a project, debrief the customer to ensure that she was happy with the result and to show the customer where you added value in your delivery. These satisfied customers will become your best ads.

Kirk Lyles, owner and president of Education Marketing Centre (EMC), shares a few ways to sell the solution and the company:

    1. When you sell a service, you are really selling yourself. People will not trust that you can deliver on the promise of the service, unless they fundamentally trust you.

    2. So how do we get people, prospects who hardly know us, to trust us? They can hear or read testimonials, but these are second-hand and from a third party. Testimonials cannot substitute for what someone thinks and FEELS about us. Here are a few ways to develop trust, or to begin to build trust (some of these are admittedly, potentially, and intentionally unorthodox):

      a. Are we passionate about the service we provide? Do we believe it has value for the prospective client we seek to convince? Does this passion and sincere belief come through in our presentation? Michel Néray, in his article "What Drives You Crazy Makes You Different," proposes that one way of identifying what makes us different are those very things that drive us crazy. This differentiates us from our competition. It's one way we develop trust—by honestly sharing what we care about, what motivates us, and what we value.
      It's OK to get personal and talk about yourself, not just your service. This could be talking about your cat or dog. It makes us a real person in the eyes of our prospects, and not just a consultant or service provider. [See also Néray's article on MarketingProfs titled "Is There Room for Passion in Your Business?"]

      b. Don't just sell your product or service, but also the values behind it. This is similar to the first point, but goes further. Don't be afraid to share what you value, what you care about—your business ethics, your method of doing business, even why you are in your business in the first place. Not just the value of the services you provide, not only the value-added—sell your values, the core and essential principles that motivate you and guide the delivery of your services.
      This is like sharing a little part of yourself—in fact, a deep part of yourself—and this also leads to trust. (It can even inspire.) Note that some businesses do this on their Web sites or in their printed literature: "Our Core Values." But it's more real, and effective, when a client hears it personally from us. Put another way, we need to share from our hearts a little, not just our heads.

      c. Don't be afraid to speak plainly about your limitations and what you will not or cannot do. This also builds trust since it is immediately apparent you are being honest. You are not trying to be a one-stop-shop, cure-all for every problem and need a client may have. We are all suspicious of someone who claims (implicitly or explicitly) that they can do it all.

    3. Give a part of your service away for free. Or offer a money-back guarantee, make a substantial part of your fees performance-based, or find some other way to minimize the risk to your prospective client. The question itself points out that when we are asking a potential client to purchase our service—something they cannot see, touch or feel—we are really asking them to take a huge risk. We must minimize that risk for our clients. Does your service really deliver on its promise? Back it up.
      Do so wisely, with sensible qualifications, but in some way demonstrate that you "know" your service will benefit them, and that you'll stick around to make sure it does, even if that means going beyond the 'fine print' of the contract. Or, better yet, put it in the contract. Promise follow-up. Promise that if Plan A does not work to their satisfaction, you'll stick around to help implement Plan B.

    4. Don't be afraid to point out the risks, the ill-effects, of a client not using your services. This is only necessary for the prospect who is not yet convinced of the need for your type of services. If a prospective client is already convinced, but is still deciding between you or your competitors, then selling yourself is the key—we're back to the matter of trust. Make sure you give them a fair chance at trusting you over your competitors.

6. Obtain appropriate testimonials

Yet another way to sell intangibles is through testimonials. These can vary in how they're presented. They are more than collecting quotes.

Damien Parker, director at Business Publications Australia, suggests using testimonials with photos showing the person using the service (sitting at a desk or whatever):

Wherever, quantify the dollar value of the benefits or progress made. This is the equivalent of the "before" and "after" shot for tangible products. When presenting an intangible," create the biggest headache (the pain factor) for the prospect and then sell them the only aspirin in town (your service).

Marcus Barber recommends looking at what the testimonials are saying, if they're not working:

If they say, "I found dealing with Lynn and her company to be a most pleasurable experience; they were highly professional; they were very helpful," then all you have are summaries about HOW you do your do. It won't be enough. Ensure the testimonials talk about the intangible benefits people gained as a result of going ahead with a purchase.

If you can, go back to those people and ask them to explain to you what exactly they gained as a result of the service—get them to focus on the OUTCOME of the purchase rather than the PROCESS of the purchase. Then you'll have testimonials that say, "My life is so much better; I wasn't sure but took a chance—I'm glad I did; if it wasn't for acquiring this service, my whole family would have been in a huge financial hole" or whatever it is that relates to your service. One more perspective— intangibles are the only products worth selling. Just make sure you're clear on exactly what it is you are selling.

Roberta Ansell, owner of Rappahannock Stained Glass Overlay, says don't market the service, market the company—the people and the philosophy:

Those are what make customers return to Joe's Ephemeral Services rather than to Bob's Ephemeral Services. You have to sell the reason why your current customers are satisfied—because your people are special, they go the extra step to make sure the service is everything it should be PLUS. That PLUS might be visible—a heater repairperson who puts disposable shoe covers on to make sure she doesn't dirty the floor—or invisible—a follow up phone call asking if the tech handled their needs and if any questions or concerns have come up.

You can also use feedback examples to sell your business: "our customers told us that we could be better and we listened!" or "here's what we've improved…." Solicit from every customer not just what you did right, but what you could better, then find a way to do it better. Let potential customers know that you work to continually improve the service you give them, based on their input. Let them know that they aren't just customers, they are partners!

A reader states that when testimonials don't work, it's usually because prospects don't have a lot in common, so the relevance of the testimonial can be too soft:

Sometimes the best way to differentiate your service company is to take a stand. Be the people who are known for outrageous advertising, your stance on the environment or the way you treat your people. Dig deep and you'll find the thing you stand for. This may seem like you're alienating people, but actually you're making it easier for them to like you.

A broader range of personalities will relate to you for having beliefs and standing up to them. Business people, in particular, may appreciate your attitude. We have three dogs at work and we participate in Habitat for Humanity. We're known as "down to earth" people. Not surprisingly, most of our clients are down to earth, too.

Mark Terpstra reminds us that "a service is only intangible because the buyer can't see the service in action before they make a buying decision."

Focus on selling the results the service produces and the company behind the service.

Write in with your challenge. Expect plenty of advice from a pool of thousands of MarketingProfs readers available to serve you.

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Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.