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A TCI Book Review

Selling the Invisible - A Field Guide to Modern Marketing

Harry Beckwith
Warner Books, New York, 1997

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. An example:

The Value of Publicity

There are six peaks in Europe higher than the Matterhorn.

Name one.

Get Ink.


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 act 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. minimizing 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. These include:

Regarding Your Basic Service

  • Assume your service is bad. It can't hurt, and it will force you to improve. (p.6)
  • Let your clients set your standards. (p.8)
  • Ignore your industry's benchmarks, and copy Disney's. (p.9)
  • Big mistakes are big opportunities. (p.12)
  • Don't just think better. Think different. (p.17)
  • The first rule of marketing planning - always start at zero. (p.18)
  • Create the possible service; don't just create what the market needs or wants. Create what it would love. (p.20)
Regarding Market Research
  • Always have a third party conduct quality satisfaction surveys. (p.24)
  • Survey, survey, survey. (p.25)
  • Beware of written surveys; it's far better to conduct oral surveys, as you have a chance to clarify any misunderstandings. (p.27)
  • Beware of focus groups - they often reveal more about group dynamics than about how individuals think. (p.31)
Regarding Marketing
  • Every act is a marketing act. Make every employee a marketing employee. (p. 38)
  • "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." (p.42)
  • Before you try to satisfy "the client", understand and satisfy the person. (p.43)
  • 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. (p.45)
  • Make technology a key part of every marketing plan. (p.50)
  • Study each point of contact with your client - your receptionist, your business card, your building, your brochure, your web site, your invoices. Then improve each one significantly. (p.51)
  • Be professional - but, more importantly, be personable. (p.54)
Regarding Planning
  • You'll never know the future, so don't assume that you should. Plan for several possible futures. (p.59)
  • In successful companies, tactics drive strategy as much or more than strategy drives tactics. Do anything. (p.62)
  • Execute passionately. Marginal tactics executed passionately almost always outperform brilliant tactics executed marginally. (p.63)
  • Do it now. The business obituary pages are filled with planners who waited. (p. 65)
  • Have a healthy distrust of what experience has taught you. (p.73)
  • Don't let perfect ruin good. (p.76)
How Prospects Think
  • Appeal only to a prospect's reason and you may have no appeal at all. (p. 88)
  • Familiarity breeds business. Spread your word however you can. (p.90)
  • Take advantage of the Recency Effect. Follow up brilliantly. (p.91)
  • The best thing you can do for a prospect is eliminate their fear. Offer a trial period or test project. (p.98)
Positioning and Focus
  • Stand for one distinctive thing that will give you a competitive advantage. (p.103)
  • To broaden your appeal, narrow your position. (p.105)
  • In your service, what's the hardest task? Position yourself as the expert in this task and you'll have lesser logic (the idea that if you can do the hardest thing well, you must be able to do everything well) in your corner. (p. 107)
  • Don't start by positioning your service. Instead, leverage the position you have. (p.112)
  • Positioning statements should address the following six points:
    1. who
    2. what
    3. for whom
    4. against whom
    5. what's different
    6. so...? (p. 114)
  • Choose a position that will reposition your competitors; then move a step back toward the middle that will cinch the sale. (p.119)
  • In positioning, don't try to hide your small size. Make it work by stressing its advantages such as responsiveness and individual attention. (p. 120)
  • Setting your price is like setting a screw: a little resistance is a good sign. (p. 133)
  • 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. (p.134)
  • Don't charge by the hour. Charge by the years (of experience). (p.138)
  • In services, value is a given. And givens are not viable competitive positions. If good value is your best position, improve your service. (p.139)
  • Give your service a name, not a monogram. (p.143)
  • Generic names encourage generic business. (p. 145)
  • Never choose a name that describes something that everyone expects from the service. The name will be generic, forgettable and meaningless. (p. 145)
  • Be distinctive - and sound it. (p.146)
  • In service marketing, almost nothing beats a brand. (p. 151)
  • A service is a promise, and building a brand builds a promise. (p.154)
  • Invest in and religiously build, integrity. It is the heart of your brand. (p.155)
  • A brand is money. (p.160)
  • Give your prospects a shortcut. Give them a brand. (p.161)
Communicating and Selling
  • Your first competitor is indifference. (p.171)
  • Say one thing. (p.171)
  • After you say one thing, repeat it again and again. (p.175)
  • Don't use adjectives. Use stories. (p.176)
  • Attack your first weakness: the stereotype the prospect has about you. (p.176)
  • Create the evidence of your service quality. Then communicate it. (p. 178)
  • Seeing is believing. Example: even when people know the tricks used by the grocery industry to make ripe oranges appear orange, they still are buy fruit with the most orange-looking peel exterior. Check your peel. (p.188)
  • If you are selling something complex, simplify it with a metaphor. (p.194)
  • You don't listen to clichés. Your clients won't either. (p.197)
  • In presentations, get to the point or you will never get to the close. (p.198)
  • Tell people - in a single compelling sentence - why they should buy from you instead of someone else. (p.199)
  • You cannot bore someone into buying your product. (p.201)
  • If you want publicity, advertise. (p.203)
  • Make your service easy to buy. (p. 209)
  • Above all, sell hope. (p.214)
Nurturing and Keeping Clients
  • Watch your relationship balance sheet; assume it is worse than it is, and fix it. (p.219)
  • Don't raise expectations you cannot meet. (p.220)
  • To manage satisfaction, you must carefully manage your customer's expectations. (p.222)
  • Keep thanking your clients. (p. 223)
  • Out of sight is out of mind. (p.229)
All in all, the book contains some very salient advice for those in the services marketing game. Definitely worth a read.




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