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The Basics of Selling Services

Become as good at selling your service as you are at performing it, and watch your sales soar.

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Editor's note: This article was excerpted from Successful Sales & Marketing.

Almost all service-oriented businesses share certain things in common that make them different than companies that mainly produce products, and these affect your marketing approach.

  • Services are typically tailored to the particular customer. You can't mass produce services as easily as you can physical products. An audit report for the Frogs R Us amphibian retailer can't be used for any other company. So the effort the service provider puts into developing the end product can't easily be used to spin off other similar products. This affects the marketing of the service.
  • Most services are personally linked. Customers who buy services typically buy the skills, competence and attention of a particular person. If that person leaves one company and goes to another, his or her customers will often follow--because their loyalty is to the individual, not the company. This happens in brokerage houses, hair salons and upscale restaurants all the time. Service businesses are difficult to sell because they're typically owner-dependent, with little in the way of capital equipment (like manufacturers have).
  • Most services are also time-intensive. In addition to expertise, what service providers mostly sell is time, and they typically bill using an hourly rate (as opposed to the per widget or per chicken-serving rate). You often make appointments to get your services rendered. For a service provider, time is literally money: If an hour passes unbilled, it's lost income, never to be recouped.
  • Unique Circumstances

    If your business is primarily a service provider, you have to approach marketing with some special sensitivities:

    • Service businesses depend on satisfied clients more than other businesses. When you're marketing your services, you can't simply drop a product on your prospect's desk. It isn't easy to invite your prospect to compare your products with those of your competitor either. So you have to market with a "satisfied client" list; they represent the best example of the quality of your service.

    The catch here is that--for some businesses--companies don't want you publicizing their use of your services. If you provide counseling services to company X for help with its drug- and alcohol-dependent employees, the president of X might not want you trumpeting their employee problems across the market.

    Solution: Develop client lists that don't mention the client. Describe your clients in ways that give the reader a "good enough" understanding of the types of companies you do business for. In your sales presentation, help prospects understand the need for privacy: Surely if they become your customer, they'd want the same discretion used in discussing your relationship with their company.

    • The sales process often takes longer, especially in business-to-business sales.

    Solution: Maintain a consistent sales effort, even when it's tempting to say you don't need it. If you lose a customer or two, you can't start from scratch to round up a few new clients. You should already have some prospects in the pipeline. This is a good reason to keep up a year-round marketing program.

    • Services are more complex to price, to deliver and to evaluate than comparatively priced products. Defining the quality of service delivery is very difficult. It boils down to whether the customer feels well-served.

    Solution: When your business provides a service, you need to build a personal relationship. Your only job is to please your main contact. You will need to conduct informal "How am I doing?" conversations on a regular basis.

    • Many professional services cover areas that are of extreme importance to the customer: legal, accounting, insurance, financial. So customers tend to be very skeptical about changing their suppliers of these services, since they are intimate and revealing in a way most other services aren't. You need to make a very convincing case to get someone to switch from such a supplier.

    Solution: When you market your service, stress the length of time of your relationships and highlight your sensitivity to the bonds of trust in your relationship with your customers. Offer prospects the chance to make a phone call to your current customers to allay their fears about changing suppliers.