Is there a difference between selling products and services?


This is a question often asked as people look for ways to refine and perfect the way they go to market.  Answering this question is made more complex by the large range of marketing and sales options that people can draw upon.  However, the fundamentals have not really changed; the proliferation of options has just made it harder to see those fundamentals.

While having multiple marketing and sales options is a key factor complicating the answer so is the use of the terms; product and service and also the now common use of the term solution.  Before you decide how you should approach selling what you offer, you must first decide whether what your offer is really a product, a service or a solution.

In answering the question will also provide input to both the strategy and the tactics to be deployed in pursuit of new customers and for growth of established customers.

Product, service or solution?

Although there is a lot of debate around these terms understanding the differences is generally quite straight forward.

  • A product is tangible so it has a specification that describes its capabilities and limitations.  So when you, for example, buy a; car, photocopier, washing machine or accounting package you can compare your needs to the specifications to inform your decision making process.  For the sales person, the specification provides a framework for exploring the needs of the potential buyer as well as a mechanism for describing how well the product fits the buyer’s requirement.
  • A service is intangible but it has a specification that is flexible with the final scope being determined through agreement between supplier and buyer.  The specification will have limitations either because resources are finite or because the supplier has limitations.  For example; a company selling hosted cloud services may only have the capacity to manage projects involving user communities up to 200 so the scope will include a size component.  Similarly; a commercial window cleaning company may limit itself to two story buildings so will not be trying for business to clean the outside windows of a skyscraper.
  • So, what is a solution?  This is one of those questions where if you ask 10 people you will probably get 11 answers.  A solution will often combine products and services but the core differentiator is that a solution provider takes away the problem and delivers back the desired outcome.

Take for example where a business needs some contract labour that they bring in and manage, then the provision of the labour is a service and some might argue the people providing the labour are in effect a product as they come with a specification in the form of their skill profiles and capabilities.  If however the supplier accepted the responsibility for delivery of the desired outcome, within an agreed timescale and to an agreed budget, then an [outsourced] solution is being provided as not only is the supplier providing the labour they are also managing the project to deliver the required result through the use of that labour.

I characterise this as the customer exporting the problem, thus transferring risk and controlling cost,  and re-importing the solution; the authority and responsibility for delivering the desired outcome rests with the supplier.  If that responsibility is on the customer side of the relationship then they are buying a service.

Summary example for a customer looking for cost effective business travel for frequent point to point carrying of samples/equipment.

Options:

  1. Buy Product = buy cars – maintenance costs variable
  2. Buy Service = rent* or lease cars – maintenance costs controlled, admin costs variable
  3. Buy Solution = use taxis* or outsource fleet management – maintenance and admin costs controlled

* Car rental or taxis would be effective for intermittent usage, lease and fleet for frequent/high utilisation

Presenting these three main categories of proposition is probably more of a challenge for the marketing function than it is for those doing the selling.  Once the sales process has commenced there is one-on-one engagement between seller and buyer and hence differences in propositions can be discussed and explained and questions from the buyer can be answered.  For the marketing function explaining the proposition in a one way communication is much harder and it requires good anticipation as to what problems the customer might have so a real understanding of the market is essential.

So what is different when selling products or services?

My high level answer to this question is that there are, or should be, no real differences.  But, the question deserves an answer:

The key difference in the way people approach selling can be found in the fact that; products are made and then sold whereas services are sold then made.

The product is made in the privacy of the suppliers’ environment whereas the service is ‘made’ in the public gaze of the customers’ environment.  A solution on the other hand is more like a Bake-off challenge; the target is defined and the result subsequently appears for judging.

Products have a finite specification and the capabilities and limitations are known and can be demonstrated before a sale is made.  A service can in effect have an infinite, or least very flexible, specification limited mainly by the available resources and capabilities which makes their demonstration more difficult.  A Service Level Agreement is often created to define the boundaries and expected behaviours for a service.

To sell a product you only have to demonstrate what it is, but with a service you have to demonstrate what might be which is a quite different challenge.  All forms of selling require the establishment of trust; the greater the intangibility the more the selling challenge involves the creation of trust without direct proof.

Good effective selling techniques can be characterised by a few key building blocks and all apply whatever you are selling:

  • Bear in mind that whether you think you are selling a product, service or solution, the customer is in effect buying the same thing; a means to achieve a result.
  • Ask don’t tell. No matter how much you know about the customer’s industry or their individual business to try to tell them the answers without agreeing on the question is just arrogant.
  • Use questions to explore and understand the specific concepts the buyer is wrestling with. Once you know what they need to achieve you can start to talk about the features of what you do in the context of their specific vision and you can begin the process of explaining the potential benefits they might gain from working with you.

If the sales person talks about features before understanding the buyer’s needs they gain no value from you being in the room; they might just as well read a brochure.  To illustrate how ineffective this will be, consider a couple of ‘comical’ terms used to describe this behaviour ‘features dump’ and ‘spray and pray’ – both put the onus on the buyer to ‘get it’ and then buy it but there is a very good chance they won’t do either.

  • Use questions to demonstrate that you understand the types of issue they might have, for instance a simple question “What impact has xxx had on your yyy?” portrays an immediate image of someone who really understands their world and the issues they have to deal with. This will trigger a process of mutual needs definition – using the question posed above you will get one of two answers; “the problems it has given us are …” or; “no that isn’t an issue for us but …”.   Either way you have acquired information that you can use to progress the exploration of their needs and the demonstration that you have the answers.
  • Use questions to educate prospects into what might be e.g. “Have you considered what you will need to do when the new xxx comes in?”. They may not have been aware of the requirement/technology/… or may not have thought how it would apply to them yet so you are helping them through your wider sector knowledge.
  • All selling activity requires the establishment of trust and in the case of a product this is potentially easier as features can be demonstrated whereas in the case of a service the features will only become tangible once delivery has commenced. However whether a product or a service the buyer is still undertaking a leap of faith that the supplier will deliver so will require the same amount of re-assurance from the seller. People selling products often underestimate the need to build trust relying too heavily on features as the main selling tool.

In summary, the key to effective selling is to recognise that you are only facilitating the buyer in their understanding of the problem, the potential means of resolution and your ability to deliver it.  You must treat all sales situations; product, service or solution, as a process of discovery, building trust and a demonstration of your capability to deliver.  Demonstrate your knowledge but don’t show off, and make it clear what it will be like for the customer to work with you if they choose you as their supplier.

One final thought; all product is likely to have an element of service e.g. delivery time, packaging integrity, order completeness, reliability, help-line performance, etc and this enveloping service may be the differentiator between you and the competition – so you need to understand how this may impact on the customer’s choice of supplier.  This service may only be required for a short period of time between order placement and commissioning of the product but don’t under-estimate its value in differentiating you from your competition.

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