Marketing a service: It’s ambiguous and difficult, and many people struggle to sell services or tech-enabled services with a pain point. A while back, a friend of mine, Hung Lee, (like a decade ago), somewhere in a London pub, used a phrase about some long-forgotten tech that continues to resonate with me until this day.
“It does what it says on the tin.”
For some reason, that totally changed my thinking about marketing. What if you could envision your service offering as a product? In a box? What would the ingredients be, the nutrition facts, the serving size, and the marketing slogan across the front? If your service offering were in a gas station competing with all the others who solve your service offering’s issue, how would it stand out?
Think of selling Reese’s vs. Peanut Butter M&Ms. How do you choose? I recently had a client say something similar around their service offering — it simply solves a pain point, said he, how on earth do you sell the resolution to a problem?
Just like this.
Let’s get one thing straight: selling a service offering isn’t like hawking the latest and greatest tech or SaaS platform. There’s a different kind of alchemy at work here. Think about it, you’re not pushing a shiny toy with a user interface; you’re selling expertise, implementation, or perhaps an API that invisibly powers other platforms.
Translating your service offering into a tangible concept can significantly augment your marketing approach. Traditional products have the advantage of being tactile—consumers can see them, touch them, and instantly get a sense of their value. Services, particularly specialized or tech-enabled ones, lack this tactile advantage, making them challenging to differentiate in an increasingly crowded marketplace. You’re essentially peddling wizardry that happens behind the curtain, making it a far cry from tangible products that customers can easily grasp. And guess what? You’re often competing against those very tangible, easily quantifiable products. So how do you make your ethereal service offering stand out like the solid, graspable item it needs to compete against?
Here’s how to approach this issue from an informed perspective, one that borrows wisdom from product marketing.
The Ingredients Label: Demystifying Complexity
Imagine if your service could break it down like a cereal box’s nutrition label. You know, the part where it tells you in painfully clear terms that you’re about to ingest more sugar than any human should? Yeah, that.
It’s not just a government requirement; it’s a playbook for consumer understanding. In a similar fashion, your “service in a tin” must feature an “ingredients label,” a straightforward breakdown of what precisely a customer can expect. Specify the components of your offering and the metrics that make them meaningful. If you’re offering a cybersecurity service, go beyond the nebulous term ‘end-to-end encryption.’ Clarify that it’s 256-bit encryption and articulate why that’s a crucial differentiator.
Nutrition Facts: What’s the “Protein” in Your Service?
Look, we all know nutrition facts are basically bragging rights for food. It’s where you find out what’s going to make you buff and what’s just fluff. In the same vein, tell people why your service is the protein shake of their business world. Do you offer analytics that can measure ROI down to the last cent? Is your customer service basically the VIP lounge of helplines? Get specific like Reese’s with its two peanut butter cups per package. No surprises, just goodness.
Resolving Pain Points: Be the Aspirin, Not the Headache
We’ve all been there—frustrated and annoyed by a problem that just won’t go away. Kinda like when you’re battling the flu and your nose turns into a leaky faucet. Enter NyQuil—the aspirin to your headache, the chicken soup to your soul. Who hasn’t seen a NyQuil commercial? You remember, the sniffling, sneezing, so-you-can-sleep stuff. They’re selling you a problem-free night, not just a medicine. And what’s the hero in this story? The “active ingredient.” What’s yours? The point is, NyQuil sells you on the idea that you won’t have to suffer through a problem anymore. And that’s gold, my friends.
Think about your service in the same way. Are you solving a payroll snafu for HR managers? Are you making data analytics as easy as pie for marketing teams? Identify that pain point clearly and be the solution, not another headache. Show them how life can be better, easier, or more efficient with your service—essentially, show them life without that irksome problem.
What’s the singular thing that makes your service a must-have? For Aleve, it was about lasting longer than Tylenol and Advil. No popping pills every four hours—just sweet, lasting relief. For you, it could be the ease-of-use, like Alka-Seltzer’s “plop-plop, fizz-fizz,” or the exclusivity of a previously prescription-only product.
The Recipe Guide: Use Cases on the Tin
Ever notice how there’s a recipe or two on the back? That’s not just to fill up space; it’s marketing genius. It’s showing you how versatile and indispensable the product can be. It’s like, “Hey, you thought you were just buying cake mix? Surprise, you can make muffins, cookies, and heck, even pancakes!”
Tons of products come with a recipe or two, why shouldn’t your service? Offering suggested “recipes” or use cases can provide context and spark ideas for potential customers. For example, if your service is an API that facilitates real-time data analytics, offer scenarios in which this capability could drive actionable insights in retail, healthcare, or logistic.
Apply the same brilliance to your service offering. Don’t just say, “We offer cloud-based solutions.” Share a use-case cookbook. “Our cloud services can streamline your accounting, host your burgeoning website, and securely store all your confidential documents.” . These “recipes” serve as practical guides that help customers visualize how your service integrates into their existing ecosystem.
Product Placement: Where Does Your Service Fit on the Shelf?
Ever wonder why milk is at the back of the store? Or why candy is so perfectly placed at the eye-level of a five-year-old near the checkout? Product placement is an art and a science. Ask yourself: if your service was a product on a supermarket shelf, where would it be? Are you a premium offering, chilling next to the organic kombucha? Or are you a budget-friendly alternative, easily accessible and right up front?
The Aisle Effect: Where Does Your Product Fit?
Physical products often benefit from strategic placement in stores—a concept known as ‘planogramming.’ For services, the digital equivalent could be your positioning on platforms or directories where your target audience searches for solutions. You’re competing for visibility and top-of-mind awareness. Knowing your ideal “shelf space” can guide SEO strategy, partnership decisions, and even pricing models. Does your offering belong next to enterprise-level suites or is it more aligned with bespoke, specialized solutions? Your placement can significantly impact your market visibility and, by extension, your potential revenue.
The way you position yourself can often tell a story as compelling as any feature or benefit. Perhaps your service was once only available to top-tier clientele, making it the single-malt scotch of your industry. But maybe you’ve expanded and democratized your offering; now, you’re the crowd-pleasing bourbon. How you place yourself matters.
In an environment where 67% of the customer journey is completed digitally, according to Gartner, think of your digital footprint as your product placement. Your ‘tin’ may be a well-curated landing page, a targeted ad, or a compelling piece of content marketing, all competing for attention in the busy aisles of the digital marketplace.
By adopting a product-centric lens for your service offering, you’re not just applying a novel marketing tactic. You’re adopting a paradigm shift, one that demystifies the intangible, contextualizes its utility, and strategically positions it for consumer uptake. The goal is not just to sell a service but to make it as understandable, relatable, and essential as any product on a shelf. And if you can achieve that, you’re not just a service provider; you’re a solution to a problem, neatly packaged and ready for consumption.
Here are some other challenges (and solutions) for marketing your intangible product or service
Intangibility Factor: According to a study by the American Marketing Association, 74% of consumers say they rely on their feelings about a service’s reliability based on online reviews, as services lack physical attributes for direct assessment.
Solution: Begin a review campaign. Everyone has a raving fan or two (or so sayeth our new client onboarding form), but they’re not likely to review or laud your service unless asked. So ask! You can handle it manually, or if you’re a SaaS platform with lots of customers, there are tons of review collection services, in addition to running campaigns with G2Crowd or Capterra.
Customer Loyalty: A report by KPMG states that consumers are 52% more likely to stay loyal to a brand if they’ve had a favorable service experience, highlighting the impact of service quality on customer retention.
Solution: Put your customer retention number front and center. One client has an astounding 97% customer retention rate (and ours is darn near as high.) It never ceases to impress potential clients who are used to being sold on one thing and then getting another.
Word-of-Mouth Influence: Nielsen reports that 83% of consumers trust recommendations from family and friends when making a service-related purchase, a much higher rate compared to product purchases.
Solution: WOMA in the B2B realm is more likely to come from analysts, and online communities, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be leveraged (if it’s good, that is.) Spend time cultivating relationships within vendor assessment communities and professional certification online channels. These can help establish credibility if you’re there to help and not sell.
High Customer Acquisition Cost: In the B2B sector, the average cost to acquire a customer for SaaS companies is $395, according to Forrester. Meanwhile, specialized service providers report an average cost that’s 40% higher, emphasizing the need for effective marketing strategies.
Solution: Yeah, them’s the breaks, kid. Higher price tag, higher CAC. It’s math.
Role of Digital Channels: Gartner states that 67% of the customer journey is now completed digitally, even for service offerings. This means that your “tin” could very well be a well-crafted landing page or a compelling email marketing campaign.
Solution: But for the love of Methuselah, please stop gting every little tiny thing. I promise you your infographic is not THAT good.
Price Sensitivity: According to a study by PwC, 60% of service customers cite price as the main reason for churn, as opposed to 38% for physical products. This suggests the significance of value proposition when selling services.
Solution: For current clients, offer as much loyalty pricing as you can afford. For new prospects, offer what you can to make yourself more attractive than whatever they are currently using. Citing time saved, resources slashed, budgets tightened, or other benefits can help when selling a high-ticket item. Also, ensure you know the hidden costs of your competitors, so your sales team can speak to those when closing a deal.
Expertise Matters: LinkedIn’s B2B Institute found that thought leadership content can increase preference for a service provider by up to 25%, making the case for strong brand positioning.
Solution: While thought leadership IS important, make sure you’re choosing the right thought leaders for your product or service. There’s a tendency in B2B marketing to channel the same voices year after year. While these people re smart and capable, their voices may not be suited for your product or service just because they’re popular and engaging someone because of the size of their audience rather than the niche in which they are an expert, can backfire when that audience feels they’ve been baited.