December 30

Selling The Invisible

Have you ever thought about how hard it is to sell services? Hotels, banks, law firms, CPAs, software companies, auto repair shops, doctors, hospitals, museums, even schools; they all share an important set of product traits. Each is selling an intangible and/or technically complex service. A service that the consumer can’t touch, experience before hand or return should they feel the service doesn’t “work” as promised. Further, because most consumers don’t fully understand these services and those like them, the consumer isn’t in a position to readily evaluate the quality of the end product. So how does the consumer know if a particular doctor or lawyer is “good?” What product attributes do they use to judge which is the best school or if a particular mechanic is the “best” to repair their car?

Obviously, consumers rely on both direct and indirect information to make this decision. The indirect information comes in the form of advertising messages. But the direct information comes from consumer exposure to the companies themselves. Two esteemed marketers named Leonard Berry and Neeli Bendapudi have coined the phrase “Evidence Management” (EM). According to Berry and Bendapudi, evidence management is “the organized, explicit approach to presenting customers with coherent, honest, evidence of your abilities. “ It is this evidence management that provides consumers with the necessary clues for directly evaluating an as of yet to be experienced, invisible service. It is this Evidence Management that either supports the advertised brand or blows it up.

Perception is reality in the absence of experience. Therefore, it is important for all brands, and especially intangible brands like those mentioned above, to match consumer perception with reality. That means managing your external brand communications and more importantly, aligning those communications with your internal evidence.   Evidence Management is the process that creates this alignment. It includes not only the employees that you hire but also the process by which you interview, hire, train and pay your employees. EM affects the design of your facilities and the noises emitted from those facilities. EM determines your internal and external processes for delivering your service. What EM does is turn your entire enterprise into a living, breathing advertisement for your brand.

As you can imagine, adopting an EM approach isn’t for the faint of heart. Because it allows your brand to drive so many enterprise decisions, it takes a great deal of time to implement. And it requires a committed CEO or President to ensure the company stays the course. But for those that adopt this approach the benefits can be staggering. For instance, the Mayo Clinic uses an EM approach and not only have they created one of the most enduring and well known medical brands in the world, with little to no advertising, their nurse turnover is 4% vs. the national average of 20%. What do you think that means to the clinic in real dollars saved in hiring and training new nurses? Once you’ve made the decision to implement an EM approach, you need to answer one important question. What is the story you want to tell your consumer? Once you’ve determined a story, then you need to ensure that every aspect of your service delivery; from the facilities design to your employess’ compensation programs, to your marketing programs, reinforces that story.

And that’s where these same executives that I talk with, the ones that believe an EM approach is beneficial to creating, maintaining and growing a service brand, are the first to balk at changing things like compensation to better align compensation programs with a brand story. And, unfortunately, that is usually where the conversation ends. I can’t blame them. Adopting an EM approach is a time-consuming endeavor filled with obstacles to overcome.

EM makes you live the brand. And in the service business, if you’re not living the brand, you can pretty much count on your consumer’s perception not aligning with his reality and that usually leads to your consumer becoming someone else’s customer. So how do you think we get more companies to buy into this philosophy? How do we sell it up the ladder until the CEO herself is leading the charge? I’m all ears people, let me know what you think.

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