Five Myths About Selling Intangible Services

The biggest difference between selling “things” and intangible services is the pivotal role of trust. Intangible service providers believe a few myths, and those myths seriously get in the way of developing business. Even more importantly, they keep providers from fully serving their clients—despite their best intentions.

Myth 1: It’s About Winning

Thinking in terms of “winning” leads insidiously to thinking in terms of winners and losers. Few providers consciously want to “beat” their clients—but they end up behaving that way! They talk about “share of wallet,” about bargaining or negotiating with their clients, about “controlling the agenda,” and about “managing expectations.” Each of these frames of reference sound innocent enough, but they rapidly degrade into a competitive perspective.

When it comes to selling intangible services, those insights pale before one other:

Do the Right Thing for the Client

Choose your mantra and repeat frequently:

  • “The only win worth winning is win-win”
  • “The only way I win is if my client wins”
  • “Winning a win-lose proposition is losing”
  • “I will always and only do well by doing good”
  • “If I focus on helping my client, it will always eventually pay off for us both.”

Myth 2: Clients Know What They Want

They don’t. Particularly when they insist they do.

If clients knew what they wanted, they could (and they sometimes do) draft their own wills, design their own information systems, manage their own financial portfolios. But the daily stock-in-trade of an intangible services provider generally looks like a black art to the client. We all know the basics about cars and hamburgers, but not about probate or XTML or media buys.

Only the most self-confident clients admit that they themselves don’t fully understand the problem—which is precisely why they seek out experts. A well-defined problem makes the answer look easy. The real expertise and art lie in defining the problem.

Myth 3: Clients Mainly Want Experience and Credibility

Most providers think that clients are focused on experience and credibility. No surprise there—most clients would say the same thing. But dig a little deeper.

Of course, clients use experience as a qualifier—to see who makes the short list to be invited in. They also use it as a justification to anyone who might question their choice. Clients also want to impress the provider with some level of knowledge, partly to guard against being taken advantage of. But those are all ways of narrowing the field or preventing harm. They don’t positively help assess trust.

Remember—clients don’t want to be experts in the provider’s field. If they did, they’d have gotten their own degree or certification. They also know they will need that expertise again in the future. What they would really love to have, if only they could be so fortunate, is confidence in an expert on whom they could then rely repeatedly. Clients don’t seek to trust their own expertise—they seek experts they can trust.

Clients’ main vehicle for assessing trust is your ability to address the issue facing them, head-on, with all its emotional complexities. The great news here is—you sell by doing. This is a samples business. You don’t sell intangibles by talking about them, but by demonstrating just what it feels like to work together.

The beauty of that is—it’s what you already do for a living anyway.

Myth 4: Being Right is Critical

Most intangible services providers think and behave as if having the right answer is the critical element to the sale. It isn’t. Having the right answer is not even a necessary condition for getting a sale; it is far from being a sufficient condition.

How many times have you known with great certainty that your proposed solution to a client was the best one—highest value, least expensive, easiest to implement, best in the long term, and so on—and yet had the client reject it? It is tempting to impugn the client’s intelligence when this happens; but it simply indicates that you did not earn the right to offer a solution.

This doesn’t mean you can stop working at being right, or that it’s easy. You can’t, and it’s not. Intangible services are complex, requiring great study and continued diligence to stay on top of. Unfortunately, if you work hard and stay on top of things, all you have earned is the right to earn the right to be trusted. Your hard work won’t sell itself, nor even differentiate you from the many others who have worked equally hard and are (nearly) as expert as you.

Myth 5: The Objective Is to Get the Sale

Revisit the mantras from Myth 1. The point is not to get the sale—the point is to help the client. If you help the client, you’ll probably get the sale. If you don’t get this sale, you’ll probably get the next one. If you don’t get that one, you’ll get another. If you don’t get that one, write it off, and return to step one—help the client. If you consistently do that, word will get around, because that kind of caring is rare, and highly prized by clients.

Adapted from “Ten Myths About Selling Intangible Services,” appearing on the Trusted Advisor Associates website, Charles H. Green is founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates.