If you are a service provider (including being a design practitioner), how you present your service to prospective clients can determine if your practice grows or fails.

A service is very different from a product, even though many products do come with some sort of back-up service. These differences make effective communication of your service to prospective clients essential. Without clients, how do you practice?

Here are some basic differences between products and services which should set the scene for seeing the need to communicate your service appropriately:

A product is tangible and usually involves the senses, meaning you can see it, touch it, smell it, and sometimes hear and taste it. A service is invisible; in fact it does not even exist when a client buys it.

A product usually is made by well-tested, well-monitored processes giving consistent quality. A service is a series of different acts, each often done within differing time frames, which rarely can be routinized into reliable, exactly repeatable processes.

A product defect can easily be seen and described, and usually has a warranty which gives the customer the right of instant replacement, even though some form of inconvenience is experienced. A service defect can be very difficult to see or describe and there is no warranty, so recourse by the client for service faults is often a process of painful negotiation or agonizing litigation.

A product defect also tends to be an impersonal thing, the purchase being made away from the place of manufacture and transacted by a sales person who didn’t make the product. A service defect on the other hand can feel like a personal attack on the client because they have met, talked to and negotiated with the practitioner. In other words a relationship exists and any service defect can be taken very personally, the client asking “how can you do this to me?”

A product usually has a price tag and it is paid for once. A service usually involves a primary fee divided into sub-fees, each paid for over varying time periods. Also, a customer has to expend some effort to get to the point of ordering a fee proposal, wait for an unknown fee, then study the proposals conditions when the fee arrives and compare it to the competitors conditions, which are in a different format and involve different descriptions of service. All this for an identical request to the different practitioners.

Therefore, the differences between products and services result in fear and uncertainty for the prospective client of a service. Compared to products, if not effectively communicated and controlled, services can be like a loose cannon, rolling about threatening to sink the ship.

When a prospective client comes along, practitioners are faced with someone who is nearly shaking with worry and extremely sensitive to mistakes. Prospective clients need to be won over, so it is vital for practitioners not only to have an excellent service, but to communicate that clearly and constantly from the start, keeping in mind the unique ‘hidden’ nature of a service.

A lot of this communication lies in the client/practitioner agreement, both how it is written and how it is presented. The agreement should be as clear and concise as possible but thorough, written in plain English, and should be explained in person when it is presented to the prospective client. An easily accessed explanatory video on your website can also help.

Client/practitioner agreements end up being extremely complex documents if they are to cover everything. A good technique to make it more palatable to the prospect is to have a main document explaining the overall service, and have attached appendices which explain things in more detail (referred to in the main document and all joined together as one bigger document). The prospect can then see the overall service quickly and cleanly, and go to the appendices for greater detail.

Also, you can tell the prospect that any competitors’ fee proposals will not have the same format as yours, and propose the prospect give you a copy of those proposals (with the practitioner’s name and the fee blacked out) so you can review them and reveal to the prospect the differences. This not only greatly helps the prospect, but your extra effort will be acknowledged by them, and you also get to see what your competitors are doing.

Never miss a chance to communicate the quality of your service and your points of difference. Conversely, it can be good to be up front with your faults and any concerns your prospect may have (for instance, that you are a small practice) and counter them before they arise (for instance, because you are small the prospect will have more personal service.) This ‘getting-in-first’ is good psychology and you will also be seen as honest.

It pays to be proficient with copywriting techniques and understand customer psychology, and incorporate this into the client/practitioner agreement and into your conversations because you are always selling. It is not all about you and your technical achievements; it is mostly about the client and their emotions.

Of course you need clients, and getting and keeping clients is a skill which we all need to continuously learn and develop. Your prospective clients (especially the new ones) come to you fearful and uncertain. Systemize your processes from the first phone call to post-service follow-up to alleviate that fear and uncertainty. It could help you have clients for life.