Book Review – Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith

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“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” The old saying goes. For a book about sales and marketing it is probably a sound principle to uphold because, even by 1997 standards, the cover is quite boring. Maybe it is intentional, or an attempt at gravitas. Either way, it is the inside that counts and for any business that delivers services as opposed to tangible goods, the inside is quite good.

Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith, was first published in 1997 and looks at the challenge of marketing services and the importance of doing so to the brand and reputation of your company. If your business sells tangible goods, the experience of using the object reflects on the manufacturer and vendor. We love Apple because the user experience (even from the point of unboxing) and quality of the products is such high quality. Selling the Invisible is about how, as service providers, we can deliver a similar experience to our clients.

A note, however, for businesses that do provide tangible goods, if you serve customers, or provide any sort of customisation, product, or experience, then you need to market services as well. Customer service, at the very least, is an intangible indicator of quality that also reflects on your brand and reputation and is perhaps more important than the products and services themselves. Beckwith points to the experience of McDonalds and Disney as examples of this with the advice:

“Ignore your industry benchmarks, and copy Disney’s.”

The subtitle of the book is “A Field Guide to Modern Marketing”, which is a great way to describe the book in both content and structure. It is presented in short sections containing shorter “chapters” with punchy headings and one liner summaries of each topic within. This makes for easy scanning and flicking through to find the particular insight you are looking for or absorbing a lot of inspiration in a short amount of content.

It has aged a little, it was perhaps a pioneer in the subject of services marketing twenty years ago. In today’s environment, the difficulty of marketing services is somewhat overemphasised, particularly in light of the communication and marketing technologies we now have available to us.

Some key take aways however, do not fade with age such as:

  • The need to do things differently to your competitors. Set the delivery of your service apart by being better (preferably) or memorable to delight your clients and get them talking about you.
  • Being flexible in your service delivery and don’t stick to rigid plans and processes. You need to be able to innovate when required, and proactively look for opportunities to do so.
  • Ensure all your elements tell your marketing story. If you are marketing a promise, then no area of your business from your logo, to design, to customer service, to the online customer journey, should be in step with that promise. Make sure your message is consistent and don’t forget involving your staff in reinforcing this, as well as being a part of this.
  • Consider other purchasing decision factors that your service might appeal to in your market. People are also attracted to a service by prestige and familiarity, so consider these in your marketing strategy.

There are other aspects of marketing the book addresses such as positioning, pricing, branding, and story telling. In fact, there is little that the book doesn’t address in terms of marketing. This again, makes Selling the Invisible a great “field guide” for service providers, and indeed, any business in the modern competitive business environment we enjoy.

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