Thinking Outside the Box

Not all of us have widgets. We don’t sell objects that are packaged in bubble wrap or a Holstein cow-designed box. All the excitement over e-commerce has largely been about selling products on the Internet — closing the deal, getting to “yes” — with the click of a mouse.

For some of us, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There’s a whole group of marketers and sales people who are on the fringes of e-commerce — envious of the success of our counterparts. These are the marketers and sales people who sell services, not products.

They don’t sell books; they sell legal services. They don’t sell CDs; they sell healthcare. They don’t sell hard drives; they sell auto insurance.

“Would you like Java with that?”

Is there a place for selling services online? Certainly, many of these businesses have web sites that outline their services. Some may even list general costs for, say, designing a web site. But the close of the deal — the call to action — is not just a mouse click away.

With few exceptions, the call to action from these sites is to make an actual phone call or send an email inquiry. You may be able to buy and sell stocks on the Internet (and you can’t get more intangible than that!) But so far, you still can’t search for a doctor online, and with a click of a mouse have an appointment in his clinic for next week.

A consumer who is buying a product can see it, touch it. Someone looking to buy a new car slides into the driver’s seat and takes a deep lungful of new car smell.

But a salesperson in the business of selling a service has a tough task — to make the intangible tangible. You have to convince the user at your web site that your service is worth terminating their online session and picking up the phone — or the delayed gratification of sending an email and waiting for a response.

Sell Your Image, Win Valuable Cash and Prizes

If you sell services, you need to create in the customer’s mind what you’re selling — an image, if you will. Use your company web site to create a picture or an image of what your customer will get. We don’t mean posting nerdy photos of your sales team. The sad truth is that they probably enjoy looking at themselves a lot more than others do.

If you don’t know what we mean by selling an image, watch television for an hour and pay attention to the commercials for services. FedEx uses fast editing and lots of movement to establish an image that they are very busy and fast. A financial planning company might use the image of an older retired couple enjoying a leisurely afternoon on the golf course, portraying an image of financial security during retirement.

One can argue that branding is even more important for services — because that’s almost all you have for the initial sale. Through the use of fonts, colors, and even the layout of your site, you’re creating an online brand.

Be consistent. Match those subtleties to the kind of customer you want to have. Often these efforts are based on the CEO’s tastes, not the customers’. That’s only good if the CEO fits into the demographic of the desired customer, which is probably rare.

Be crystal clear about the benefits you offer over your competitors. This isn’t to say you should make your web site sound self-congratulatory; web users often take flight at the first scent of self-promotion. Instead, think about how you’re different and exploit that.

To say that you deliver services on time and on budget isn’t enough. Do you deliver more services? What are your value-adds? If you don’t know how you’re different, then you may have a bigger marketing problem than a web site can solve.

Become the Expert in Your Field

You may have heard or read this elsewhere but it bears repeating — make yourself the expert. Your site should include useful information that may have nothing to do with you specifically.

A dry cleaner, for example, may have tips on how to take care of family heirloom linens, or how to get that Merlot stain out of the silk blouse — at least until they can get into the hands of professional clothing cleaners.

The medium may also be better suited for retaining customers rather than gaining new ones. Try to explore ways to add value to your service via your site.

For example, the same dry cleaner can send an email reminder that the customer’s clothing is ready to pick up. An architectural firm might have a password-protected section of their site for customers to review plans as they develop.

Call now! Operators are standing by

Perhaps the most important, most obvious and most-missed point on a web site for services is to be explicit about what you want the user to do. Do you want the user to call? To send an email? What is your call to action?

Once you figure that out, then make it easy for the user to do it. How many sites are out there with no contact information? No phone number! No address!

You’d think these companies took cyberspace literally and they’re really disembodied beings floating in the ether. Unless you’re trying to reach religious converts from the afterlife, make sure your site prominently leaves your calling card.

Service marketers don’t have to sit on the sidelines any longer. They can join the e-commerce bandwagon. They can be profitable via the web. They just need to be more creative than a Holstein-colored box.

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