The book was recommended to me so long ago that I forget the operator who first suggested it. Now, after having read it, I really regret not having done so earlier.
"Selling the Invisible," by Harry Beckwith, addresses a subject of overriding significance to every reader of this magazine, as well as for those of us in publishing and other businesses where our responsibilities have to do with providing, enhancing and maintaining services.
"Services are not products, and service marketing is not product marketing," Beckwith begins. "A product is tangible. You can see it and touch it. A service, by contrast, is intangible....You usually know when a product fails... [but] knowing when a service fails is much harder...So you buy a service with no guarantees—and even more uncertainty."
With that premise, his pithy and insightful volume goes on to explore the challenges of managing, improving and marketing the invisible yet essential services that have come to dominate the U.S. economy.
Onsite foodservice can clearly learn from him, and not just because it is so hard to convince non-commercial customers of the value our foodservices offer. We also have trouble selling our services' value to administrations, clients and others.
And unlike many business tomes, Beckwith doesn't speak down to the reader with over-analytical essays. His ruminations are only a page or so long and focus on a single point. I'll share a few of my favorites here, but his book is full of gems and this is only a sampling.
Don't overestimate yourself. Even though no one wants to admit it, you and everyone in your organization probably thinks your services are better than they actually are. His advice: "Assume your service is bad. It can't hurt and it will force you to improve."
Don't only get better—get different. Despite the TQM gurus who for years have exhorted us to focus on continuous improvement, "America's great service successes are not the companies that did what others did, but a little better," Beckwith says.
"They are companies that did things a whole lot differently." Looking to do what you did last year at least 15 percent better only works for a time, he notes. Real success only comes from continuous innovation, not just continuous improvement.
Make sure every employee knows he or she is in marketing.
Beckwith believes one of the biggest mistakes businesspeople make is leaving sales and marketing up to a department or individual that has been assigned to that task. " Marketing is not a department. It's your business," he says. Every service, task, customer contact and communication counts. Develop a culture where "every act is a marketing act ... and every employee is a marketing person."
Popularity matters. One effect of an educational system that prizes technical competence is that people forget that other aspects of one's character can have just as great a bearing on one's success. In many ways, "Life is like high school," Beckwith reminds us. "The things that made you popular start mattering again.
"Hate it, fight it, march in the streets against it, but it is true. The competent and likable solo consultant will attract far more business than the brilliant but socially deficient expert. In large part, service marketing is a popularity contest."
Always have a backup plan.
People think they can plan ahead, but tend to forget they can't predict the future. Just as important for marketers, "you can't predict people's behaviors." That doesn't mean advance planning is useless, just that things won't always turn out the way you expect them to. The fix? "You never know. So don't assume that you should. Plan for several possible futures."
Business is in the details. Finally, I think this a great tip for anyone in onsite: "People need to justify their decisions to themselves. So they look for differences upon which to base their decision...The more alike two services are, the more important each difference becomes.
"Much of effective service management can be described as the careful management of the seemingly inconsequential. Accentuate the differences."