June 21, 2008

Despite significant growth in retail markets, salespeople in the electronics industry are expected to benefit little from this growth during the coming decade. The number of people employed in retail sales now tops 4.5 million and employment in this sector is expected to grow 12% in the coming decade, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2006 Labor Statistics. In fact, retail sales is projected to be one of the leading work categories providing the new jobs – approximately 557,000 – between 2006 and 2016 but salespeople in the electronics industry will reap few benefits from the increase.

Electronic commerce is growing in popularity, according to the Labor Department, but “the impact of electronic commerce on employment of retail salespersons is expected to be minimal.” Even though retail salespeople will “remain important in assuring customers, providing specialized service, and increasing customer satisfaction,” the Labor Department stresses that there are major changes occurring in this market. Many who have spent their careers in sales are finding themselves selling more intangible products and services than in the past.

This shift toward providing intangible services is especially apparent in the technology field. American’s dependence on technology has resulted in a multitude of previously nonexistent services such as hiring the “Geek Squad” to repair computer hardware and software as well as assisting in connecting services and providing in-house service calls. In an effort to protect their computers from a variety of dangers ranging from viruses to mechanical glitches, consumers are funneling large sums of money into software companies in the form of monthly fees. In return, consumer’s computers are regularly monitored, updated, and protected.

It is ironic that these high tech services are being marketed in such a low tech way. Nationwide, software salespeople are sitting in cubicles cold calling prospective customers. “There has to be a better way to sell these software packages and services without reverting back to the archaic cold call,” says Jeremy Jackson a computer software salesman with Protechnica. Jack Ferrari writes in Successful Sales and Marketing magazine that, “These are basically intangibles, which represent the use of cash to purchase assets with an undetermined life, which may never mature into cash and should not be sold like tangibles” (cars, make-up, encyclopedias) such as in the past! In Ferrari’s 2005 article “Become as good at selling your service as you are at performing it, and watch your sales soar,” he stresses that “intangibles need to be sold to clients not because they want or need them, but because they cannot live without these intangibles.” Modern day salespeople “need to brand these items in such a way that it becomes part of their lifestyle!”

“If your business is primarily a service provider, you have to approach marketing with some special sensitivities,” Ferrari stresses. “You can't simply drop a product on your prospect's desk” or invite potential customers “to compare your products with those of your competitor.” Ferrari contends that the secret to selling services depends on marketing to a “satisfied client” list because they already believe in “the quality of your service.” However, unless such lists are provided to salespeople new to the job, these employees face the daunting task of finding new customers and convincing them to buy their services.

Selling tangible goods is a visual experience. Salespeople can literally place their product on the table in front of a prospective client and demonstrate how the product fulfills their needs. The primary challenge in this type of sales is to offer products that are better, cheaper and easier to use, come with a comprehensive warranty program, and can be delivered expeditiously. Protechnica’s Jackson believes that selling intangibles is one of the most difficult problems salespeople face. This is an enormous concern because as technology circles the globe, an abundance of intangible services follow in their wake. Making these intangible services tangible to consumers is the challenge today’s salespeople face.

Some experts believe the way to accomplish this is to successfully brand companies during the initial marketing plan and continue to build upon this core foundation while simultaneously differentiating the brand and fostering trust during the sales equation.

Figuratively, a brand is “a mark that you sear into livestock with a hot poker” that identifies which animals belong to your ranch. Following this logic, marketers have come to think of branding as “a mark that you sear into people’s minds and hearts that identify your product (or) services of your company.” Write Market, “the web design pros,” has developed over 100 small business web sites with marketing campaigns since 1998, breaks down the branding process into seven basic elements and suggests that companies analyze all seven elements and strengthen any weaknesses that exist because “all the elements must work together to create a business presence.”

Write Market’s Terry Kent and Renee Kennedy contend, “branding has to encompass many elements that all work together to create a meaningful mark in the minds of the buying public and has to be at the root of ALL marketing efforts.” In order to accomplish successful branding, executives should begin by analyzing and answering the following questions pertaining to the seven elements and making corrections as necessary to position their company strongly in the market. The resulting information will be used to create a successful brand and form the core of the supporting marketing plan.

Element One -- Niche/Target/Positioning

* What do you know about your Industry?
* Where does your company fit into the Industry?
* How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?
* Who is your target?
* How does your product satisfy your target's needs?

Element Two -- Slogan or Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

* Does your USP deliver one, strong BENEFIT to your target?
* Does your USP tell people what you can do for them?
* Does your USP eliminate the competition?
* Does your USP imply that you are the ONLY solution that your target will need to solve their problems?

Element Three -- Logo

* What images or ideas does your logo conjure?
* Does it deliver a clear message?
* Does it deliver a message that is consistent with your USP?

Element Four -- Customer Service Policy Do you have systems in place to handle Customer Service Issues? Topics might include:

* Billing and payment services
* How you will handle customer complaints
* First contact with a customer
* How you answer the phone

Element Five -- Pricing

* How does your price compare to your competitor's price?
* Are you using pricing to imply quality?
* Are you using pricing to imply cheapest price?

Element Six -- Trust and Credibility

Trust:

* Secure online shopping
* Guarantee or warranty
* Build a community

Credibility:

* Are you looked at as an expert?
* Do you provide information to your clients freely? (This is a tough issue, you do want to provide some information, but you may need to have limits - you don't want to give away the store.)
* The Web is a great place to provide information and to make your business look credible. It can start with the little things like a professionally designed web site and move up to providing resources like online manuals that show how to use your products.

Element Seven -- Marketing Strategies (how you will build awareness of your brand):

* Networking
* Direct Mail Marketing
* Traditional Media Advertising
* Training Programs
* Become an Expert
* Direct Personal Selling
* Publicity and Press Releases
* Web Site
* Internet Advertising
(The Write Market, LLC., 1998 – 2006)

Setting up a marketing plan for intangible products should follow the same models as tangibles. To promote success, decision makers should determine their niche market, study the competition and then determine where their company should be positioned in relation to the competition. It is essential that companies offer something to their target market that their competition is not offering. Among other things “this could involve a number of strategies including customer service policy, pricing, delivery, (or) production, ” Write Market stresses.

Once companies identify their unique attribute that differentiates them from the competition, they can develop and build their brand utilizing the seven elements. Write Market urges companies to continually affirm their uniqueness when building a USP, designing a logo, developing customer service policies, and nurturing trust and credibility. Once this is done, they can take their tightly branded company to the public and begin building brand awareness through marketing strategies. “Your brand,” Write Market contends “culminates in building loyalty in the hearts of the buyers.”

The emphasis on differentiation and trust during the branding process of an intangible can have a huge impact on sales. Charles H. Green, founder of Trusted Advisor Associates, emphasizes that branding is important when marketing intangibles “but it has a narrower role than is the case in most consumer and industrial markets. Buyers of complex intangible services are buying specialized expertise. They dread the thought of having to become experts in the thing they are buying – in fact, that is why they are seeking an expert.” Given a choice, he notes, consumers “prefer to find a qualified expert they trust rather than evaluate the expertise of many experts.”

Differentiation and trust should ideally be paired in a symbiotic relationship when marketing an intangible. Green contends that the most significant differentiator of all is the customer’s “increased level of confidence” that results from trust. “Buyers of complex intangible services want the confidence that comes from trust,” he notes, “and trust is born of personal experience.” In essence, branding gets your product on the short list, differentiation provides the opportunity for salespeople to pitch the product as well as their personal reliability, but trust is what seals the deal. Green contends that differentiation of the product provides access to customers that then must differentiate between the salespeople involved.

Thus, although differentiation is essential in branding products, it does not end there. Differentiation extends beyond the product to people. “The best differentiation…happens at the individual level,” Green says, “in the act of buying and selling. This is good news, because it’s a lot easier to differentiate human beings deployed against unique problems and individual clients than it is to differentiate dozens of complex abstract intangible service firms.” He urges salespeople to minimize marketing based on mission statement and corporate differentiation and concentrate more on their trustworthiness and rapport with the client. “Let your clients test-drive you,” he says, because “the experience will be unique.”

Green believes that “trust is best assessed by the equivalent of a test drive -- doing sample work with the professional so that clients can evaluate their own level of trust at working with the expert. As trust is continually built, use the success of the product and services to sell more by producing documentation, testimonials, case studies, plans, statements of ‘deliverables’ or ‘outcomes’, etc., to give your intangible product as much tangibility as you can achieve.”

By Emily Hummel

Emily Hummel is a graduate student at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida.

Courtesy of http://www.brandchannel.com

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