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Selling the Invisible: How People Buy Something They Don’t Understand

13 August 2009 Written by: Jorge Lazaro Diaz No Comment
Selling the Invisible: How People Buy Something They Don’t Understand

Harry Backwith’s Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing was required reading at the system integration firm where I worked. All directors were given a copy and expected to finish them. I wasn’t sure what point our CEO was making when he assigned it to us, but I sure did when I was done with it. Selling the Invisible helped me better understand the customer’s perception when buying complex services like the technology work we delivered. It also explains how buyers evaluate the quality of what they get.

Customer have a hard time judging whether the complex service or product they receive from you is good, bad, or mediocre. They don’t know enough about what you do to understand it. Even if you explained it to them in detail, it’s outside their area of expertise. And since they are hiring you do this work for them, they don’t really want to know it.

The book uses our relationship with medical doctors to illustrate the point. How can you tell if a surgeon or an oncologist is any good? After you’ve read through any legal databases to see if they’ve been sued or asked the opinion of other doctors, you really don’t have much else to go on. Even if you check with other patients, you are only getting the opinion of another non-expert. Since you lack intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the human body, you don’t have the knowledge to review the facts.


So what is it you can see and evaluate in order to judge a doctor’s overall competence?

  • Their listening skills
  • Their bedside manner
  • The attentiveness of their office staff
  • How timely they run their office.

When you get right down to it, it’s downright scary to think about it this way. But it clearly illustrates how important trust and confidence play into these relationships. Neither of these measurements has a bearing on how well someone handles a scalpel, but it’s the only tangible evidence you’re going to get.

The boss at the integration firm understood this and wanted us to appreciate the importance of our non-tangible deliverables. If we failed to return phone calls promptly, arrived later than expected for our meetings or left a dirty coffee cup in the customer break room, the customer might make assumptions about the rest of our competence. Would they assume sloppiness in the kitchen translates to sloppiness in the work we were hired to do?

What would they instead think if we provided timely and accurate status reports? What if we briefed the customer on potential problems and reviewed with them our problem response plans? What if we consistently showed the highest possible levels of professionalism and even made sure to clean up after ourselves when we ate in their break room. Then when problems arise (and they will in any complex project), the buyer feels very different. They may even think they are in the best hands possible. What a difference that would make in our buyer / seller relationship.

When you’re in the thick of tough, exciting technical work, it’s easy to forget how the other person views us. When you’re maneuvering through an involved job search, a sales process or any involved interaction with someone else where you haven’t already established a relationship, you have to deal with this. You know how good a job you’re doing. Heck, maybe you’re doing an outstanding job. But when it comes right down to it, the customer may just see that you tend to take long cigarette breaks and talk a lot on your cell phone. Keep this in mind in all your undertakings.

Hope this helps!


Jorge Lazaro Diaz

Jorge Lazaro Diaz is the "Original" Career Jockey who started this blog and now serves as the Managing Editor. You'll find he enjoys focusing on professional and personal development articles and frequently covers motivational and spiritual topics.

You can learn so much about this author by clicking here.

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