Sep 20, 2016

Why are Professional Services so Difficult to Sell? Making a Case for Value

I watched with disgust and dismay as the recent publicity unfolded about Wells Fargo Bank and the appalling breach of ethics apparently perpetrated by 5000+ bank employees against its customers – all apparently in the desperate attempt to meet sales quotas for financial services ?

Why were these services so difficult to sell that bank employees had to resort to fraud to meet their individual sales objectives? Was it a simple matter of excessive quotas or is there something inherently difficult about selling financial services?

Many will be talking about the Wells Fargo fraud for months. They will focus on management, sales culture, and all manner of possible influences. But I think something more fundamental is at work and something with which all of us who sell professional services need to contend. In a recent article about general issues of service marketing, Kevin Johnson, a financial writer for the Houston Chronicle, identified this problem: “[The difficulty in selling a service is that] the people you pitch to may not be able to visualize what you do. …, but even [after you explain the benefits] … you may have to repeatedly articulate why your service has value.“ 

I sometimes find it difficult to help my customers see the value of the services I offer. It is a real challenge to paint a word picture of future benefits that is vivid enough to overcome the reluctance caused by the need to part with significant cash to sample or “try” these services.

One place I look for answers: the masters of word picture creation: Advertisers. Since the early days of newspapers, advertisers have been painting great word pictures in an effort to inspire people to buy all sorts of goods and services. Their newest territory was opened with the advent of the Internet, and online advertising is growing rapidly.  

When I recently looked  for nuggets of wisdom that I could use in my services marketing challenges I found one fairly quickly in a Wordstream blog post by JonathanDane . In his post, Jonathan describes ideas that make AdWords campaigns effective, but I think one of his ideas also recommends itself to those who sell professional services because they help us make “our word pictures” vivid:

"Advertisers sometimes lose sight of what their customers are truly looking for. I call this “The End Goal:” or what people ultimately want to accomplish with the help of your product or service."

Instead of justifying the value  to Mr. Bank Customer of online BillPay with overdraft protection and deposit processing via mobile device, by telling him,  “he’ll save on postage” or “he’ll enjoy the convenience of using his computer to pay his bills,” it’s more compelling to focus on the End Goal, e.g.,  “You’ll never pay another overdraft fee, and never again have to visit the bank.”

Now that’s a word picture I could get behind. 

Apr 10, 2014

Emergency Health Care Advocate Service – a growing need filled by a newly launched service

I’ve always felt that service developers and deliverers can be the most creative marketing people in business. As a group, they are remarkably adept at recognizing market needs and creating and launching services to meet those needs.

Last year when my mother was taken to the ER by ambulance, the facility where she lived, which was about 40 miles away from me, did not notify me. The first I heard of it was when the ER called and said, “Your mother has been brought in for treatment, and she‘s upset and asking for you. Can you give us a little medical history?” As I left an appointment to drive to the hospital, I remember thinking, “I wish she had someone with her to calm her and make sure that she gets the attention and treatment she needs in that busy ER.” 

Fortunately for my mother, when I arrived an hour later, all was well. But what if she’d had no nearby family? 

In fact, today many elderly people live on their own and far from family members and cannot count on friends, who also tend to be elderly, for help in a crisis.  Since Janis Carney is an attorney specializing in elder care, she was well aware of this dilemma, which, with an aging population, will only grow greater. In 2013, she created a company, EASE Plan Inc., to provide 24/7 patient advocacy for elderly patients in the ER. Her plan, which for a monthly fee offers Emergency Advocacy Support and Education (EASE) to enrolled members, seems to strike a welcome chord in Santa Clara County (SF Bay Area), where she launched the service.

“As a doctor for 20 years, I know how complicated the medical systems has become,” says Dr. H. A. Satri Sukhdeo of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, in Palo Alto, CA. “Patients can easily get lost in the healthcare system, and [it] is especially dangerous for them when they end up in the ER. These patients need an advocate,” One of every five members of the Boomer generation and almost 1 in 3 of us over the age of 75 will visit a hospital emergency room at least once this year. Demand for EASE Plan services seems likely to grow with the shifting demographic.

Current clients are finding that Ease Plan offers significant benefits.  “I have two grown children, but neither of them could be here in less than 5 hrs. if I had a medical emergency. I felt bad when my own mother had a medical emergency and could not get medical attention quickly. I signed up for Ease Plan as soon as I heard of it,” Said Linda C., Ease Plan client.

The service not only supports its clients in the ER but also helps them organize their medical information, be clear on the services to which they are entitled, and, generally, be more effective consumers of healthcare even outside of the ER.

“My mother needs 24-hr. care and is in a skilled nursing facility. Unfortunately, I have found that without a professional care advocate, she does not receive all of the care she should be getting. Our [Ease Plan] Care advocate has been a tremendous help to mother and to me,” said Connie F., another Ease Plan member.

Nov 30, 2013

Winning the attention of your prospects and customers

Jerry Kroth wrote a Thanksgiving message and I can’t get it out of my head. Dr. Kroth is a retired Counseling Psychology professor from Santa Clara University. Besides being a very competent teacher, he has a flare for writing, and has indulged his interest by publishing 15 nonfiction books since 1980 that Amazon considers still in print and available 

As a lecturer he might have been able to reach from 20 to as many as 300 students in each session, but being a published author gave him a potential worldwide audience. Then about four years ago, Jerry discovered the power of YouTube, and began creating video podcasts to expand on the ideas in his books, tailoring them to an audience who either doesn’t read, or just doesn’t want to take the time. Although past offerings were viewed by less than 1,000 people, his latest YouTube offering, The JFK Assassination: What Really Happened now boasts over 200,000 viewers.

As Jerry, who is clearly surprised with the mass appeal of his message, wrote in an email to family and friends, I realized that more people watched my one hour long video about the JFK assassination, than ALL the students I ever taught at my university in over 37 years of teaching. Can you imagine that! So I am sort of quietly celebrating something in the quiet of my own office. I'm 72, and I see 200,000 viewers, and I kind of wonder what it all means.”

I think Jerry’s experience of having a piece of work go “viral” is a heady thing. No doubt the topic, and the timeliness of the publication of the video and the book contributed to its broad appeal.  It is hard to realistically aspire to audiences of 200,000 without significant self-promotion, unless you have those kinds of factors working for you. But there are a few things business writers and creators of content can do to increase the rate as which audience members “share” with their friends, and to do a better job of winning audience attention for their message:

1.       Come up with a great story to tell. Storytelling as a marketing device is nothing new. There are marketing pros that are known for their mastery of this business art form, such as Nancy Duarte  and Michael Margolis. Some people object, saying that their message doesn’t lend itself to storytelling. But I maintain that it is a surefire way to engage with the reader (and the target) of your content. So make the effort.

2.       Master the format the audience prefers. If you look at Jerry’s video, you will find it well produced. Even though it is based on content from his latest book, Coup d'etat: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I have a bet with my wife that Jerry has not sold 200,000 copies of his book. Rather, I believe it is the video that has captured the imagination of the public, partially because of the accessibility of the medium. It is convenient to watch, and well produced. If you know your audience, you’ll shape your format to their preferences.

3.       Make sure your content has what I call a “you see Timmy…” moment. Like many of my generation, I was an avid fan of the TV show, Lassie, when I was a kid. You may remember if you’re old enough, the TV show with a Collie as the star. Timmy was the small boy of the household. Each episode had Lassie performing some feat based on innate animal wisdom that frequently confused Timmy. The last five minutes of the show frequently featured a heart-to-heart with Dad, when he explained the WHY of Lassie’s actions.

I believe for most content to be widely accepted and shared, it needs to make a point, a recommendation, or an assertion. It can’t be just about reportage. I believe you must offer a new insight or pose a thought provoking hypothesis. Take a stand in your message.

There is so much content being thrown at people these days. The Internet has removed the high cost of reaching large numbers of potential customers, and people are making instant decisions about what to read (or view) and what to ignore. Win their attention by focusing on: 1) a great story; 2) audience friendly content; 3) and a message with a point of view.

Apr 9, 2013

Professional service sales without testimonials: Fruit trees without bees!

I was working at my desk on a Sunday afternoon, when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize,
“Hello, I am ____ and I am calling about _____ who has used you as a reference for some home repair work. What can you tell me about him? Did he do good work for you?”

How many of us have provided a reference in the past or been on the other end and called and requested a reference for someone we were interviewing or considering for a job or project? Conducting such “due diligence” seems reasonable and prudent and is a well established part of the service sales process.

Testimonials--a special type of reference

As a provider of paid services, your ability to have former or current customers privately validate your value to their organizations is important. In fact, it may be the deciding factor in getting a purchase order or engagement. But getting your references to put their names to a few sentences that sing your praises and permission to publish their references on your website, review sites, and in social media is a special level of endorsement. It’s called a “testimonial,” and I believe that the most successful service businesses use them early and often to introduce themselves, help potential customers feel comfortable, and inspire trust. In other words, testimonials are invaluable at every stage of the service buying process. Surprisingly, many service businesses have no process in place to collect, compile, refresh, and publish their testimonials. 

In a study conducted by a Dutch consulting firm, potential customers were willing to pay more for a specific service when it was presented with effective testimonials.  Campaigns built around testimonials are highly effective. Used as part of a professional sales person’s toolkit, they increase success.

Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?

In my opinion, there are three things that you, as a key player in a service business, need to keep in mind about testimonials:

  1. They have a shelf life, especially if you use them often
  2. Real people are behind them, so you should stay connected with them
  3. Don’t keep them a secret

 OK—so testimonials aren’t chewing gum, but they DO lose their flavor

Asking customers how they liked their service or simply sending them a note and asking them to comment on their service experience does your customers a disservice. A hands-off approach may be a fine technique for quality assurance for internal use only. But many of your customers may be busy and generally not able to devote the time desirable for crafting an effective 2-3 sentence testimonial. Asking them to write something or trying to guilt them into responding and then posting their testimonials all over the internet with their name attached may embarrass them if there are inadvertent errors in grammar or spelling. And let’s not forget content!  You want your testimonials to deliver the specific messages that will resonate with your customers. I think it is better to work with the people you’ve asked to provide testimonials and take the time to assure those testimonials will serve you well. A high-touch approach to crafting testimonials reflects well on the long-term customer relationships.

You can lose your spot on their Shelf of Mind through inattention

Since you want customers with whom you have a long-term positive relationship to let you use their names and thoughts to promote your services, you need to stay connected with these customers. Encourage them to “like” your business Facebook page, subscribe to your YouTube Channel, and follow you on Twitter. Not into Internet stuff? Well, how about a quarterly seasonally appropriate greeting card--maybe with a free latte card enclosed—and a “thank you” for their ongoing help in growing your business. By the way, keeping in “loose touch” with these valuable contacts helps to assure your business a spot on their shelf of mind—and your name on their lips when someone asks about a good provider of your service. 

Like bees around fruit trees, testimonials spread the good word

In days gone by, testimonials were used by sales reps to bolster presentations and facilitate sales. They could be put in context and additional details could be added verbally to facilitate their relevance to a specific sales situation. Today, regardless of where they are first posted (website, Yelp, Google Reviews), testimonials are replicated throughout the social web, where they remain searchable for years. Once on the internet in a few select places, other hands can spread the word and make testimonials about your service accessible to all. Consequently, these testimonials must be effective. Your potential customer sees only what is on the page, so a testimonial must  be well-crafted and unambiguous.

It is a short leap from “unambiguous” to “contrived,” and it’s no surprise that a premium is placed on testimonials that can be verified as coming from real customers and not as planted by paid “friends” of a business. Review sites like YELP have developed sophisticated software techniques for identifying genuine testimonials from faked ones.

Use an Impartial 3rd party to collect your testimonials?

Since testimonials are widely viewed as critical—heard of Angie’s List?--many businesses have begun to turn to  third parties to collect and verify testimonials, both for logistic and practical reasons and because customers tend to trust testimonials that they can confirm are truthful. 

Amazon Verified Purchase
Several years ago, Amazon started adding the tag line “Amazon Verified purchase” to reviews to confirm that the reviewer had actually bought the product from Amazon about which the reviewer contributed a testimonial. Since that time, several firms have developed third party solutions that use the power of the internet to collect, vet, and publish testimonials, with generally good results for their customers.
“Our experience indicates that our testimonials were 30% more effective in generating business when we used a verification firm to collect and verify”. This individual providing this testimonial used a firm called Testimonial Shield.    

According to Terry Doland, of Express Printing of Sunnyvale, CA  and a local reseller of a third party solution called, Mpact Magic , “…by allowing our customer’s customer to control all aspects of  testimonial creation and posting, we increase the value and the utility of the reference.”

Whether you do it yourself or hire someone else to do it, ask your customers to help you market your service business by sharing their experience of buying and using your service. Afterwards, stay in touch with these customers who provide testimonials and share with them the good news about your business with prospects, on networks, and in your channels.