Tangible vs Intangible Selling

Tangible vs Intangible selling is a conceptual question. Every offer is primarily either tangible or intangible. But can an individual salesperson sell something of this type?

Tangible items for sale already exist. They are sitting there on the shelf, or the showroom floor. You can walk over and see them, touch them, maybe even pick them up. Examples are washing machines, automobiles, and jugs of milk.

Intangible items to be sold are not yet physicially present. They exist in the minds of the prospect and, more significantly, the salesperson. Some imagination needs to be used on both sides for this sale to happen. Examples are custom programmed software or being a bestselling co-author in a forthcoming book. Surprisingly, perhaps, a customized sign made for a shop.

sign, custom sign, reach for the moon, intangible selling, intangible sale

Photo by Designecologist from Pexels

I first discovered I was good at selling the intangible in the mid-2000s while running a metal fabrication shop. Turned out I'd been doing it all along—general contractors would want a custom bracket made of 3/4" steel, let's say, to hold up the beams of the huge open concept cabin they were building. This kind of thing was a gnarly, heavy, this-time-only-angled and drilled connector. Especially with signs, though, specifically the collaboration we'd do with a sign manufacturer, was where it was really pointed out to me that what we were selling was intangible.

The Difference Between Tangible vs Intangible Selling

Alarmingly, the salesperson at the sign shop said, "People have no idea what they want when they come in here. There's no picture in their head of the outcome. They're trusting me to come up with something." She paused, then continued: "And they're handing over thousands of dollars to me on that belief that we'll come up with something good."

"Huh," I thought. I saw her point immediately. In the metal fab world I was more familiar with, it seemed easier. People wanted metal letters, or a gate or railing. Or wrought iron fencing. Or that kind of structural steel I mentioned earlier. That felt necessary. It wasn't hard to visualize what the outcome would look like.

But a sign? That could be anything. Therefore, I realized the prospect was placing a lot of faith into the seller. Should the sign be round or square? How much wood and how much metal? Should the frame be metal, and the lettering routered in relief out of the wood, then painted to stand out? Would there be a picture, maybe of some trees and a mountain? Or should the design go more abstract? Ought we to focus less on imagery and more on style?

The Trust Scale for Selling The Intangible

Subsequently, I realized there was a sliding scale for buyers when it came to trust of the seller's ability to provide a good experience with the intangible sale.

On one side you've got the fully trusting, "I know you: I like you, I trust that whatever you come up with will be excellent and I don't have to worry about it". This could almost be considered abdication of responsibilty; however, I view it more as transference of responsibility, or delegation. Even if the buyer deep down is not in love with the final outcome, they believe the seller knows best.

On the other side you've got minimal trust. "I want to see this every step of the way along. I emphatically want control over what happens." For those selling the intangible, this can be a genuine source of frustration. "Why won't the customer leave me alone to do what I'm good at? Why won't they let me run according to my own internal schedule, rather than trying to worry me along? I know how long these things take. I know the steps to do them in. Why must I explain everything?"

When selling the tangible, you obviously have the thing right there to point at. Features and benefits are available to rely on. If the prospect doesn't follow along, it's readily apparent: you can stop, go back, and find out what's missing.

Selling intangibles...not so much. You must dig. Get to the heart of "Why" this person wants what they want. Likely you'll have to uncover factors they weren't conscious of, preferences they didn't know they had. Unfortunately, it's easy to blow past key sales factors if you don't notice the prospect sitting there nodding mechanically, eyes glazing over.

Deciding whether your firm is focused on tangible vs intangible selling can even have a big tax implication.

Risk Factors In Tangible vs Intangible Sales

In selling tangible offers, you run the risk as the salesperson of falling back on features and benefits. Reliance on these factors is a lower level of selling: it's less effective. Often you'll miss the prospect's "Why" and not get the sale.

As you sell the intangible, you can easily run past the prospect's true reasons for buying. Trying to fit the individual prospective customer into a "one size fits all" process will cause that to happen.

Unless the prospect is well educated about the offer before they arrive, and has a personal sense of urgency about taking action on it, the fact is that the intangible sale is going to take longer. Significantly, what I have observed over a long period in the sales field is this: some people simply don't seem to be able to make the intangible sale.

Whenever hiring into an organization where the intangible sale is a requirement it is not enough that you look at candidates with excellent sales histories. You must find out if they have a history of successfully selling intangible offers.

What Needs To Happen In The Intangible Sale?

A transference of imagination, from seller to buyer, is necessary to make the intangible sale. I'll come back to this in a future discussion, but I want you to understand this for now. Depending on where the prospect is on that line scale I described above, evidently it can take some time to solidify that image and make that transference happen. There's a process to this, of course, but for now all I want you to understand is that this is what happens. Get clear on the concept: tangible vs intantible selling. Which does your organization focus on? Do you have the right people for the role?

>> Jason Kanigan is a sales force developer and conversion expert. Schedule a consultation with him to focus on your specific situation <<