Marketing Your Intangibles – Perception Is Reality and Feelings Are Facts

by David W. Cottle, CPA, CMC David W. Cottle, CPA, CMC, is a noted consultant to professional firms. His latest book is “Bill What You’re Worth.” His thoughts appear here by special arrangement with Lockhart Industries, Inc. Often, professionals have too narrow a view of their product. They sometimes view the tax return, financial statement or other report, sometimes called the deliverable, as their product. Yes, the deliverable is a tangible representation of your service. As such, it is an important part of your service, yet it is not the service. KEY POINT: The view that service is only the production of a deliverable is dangerous for professionals because it defines professional services as little more than a set of deliverables. Instead, think of your services as activities that take place during production and consumption processes that are partially simultaneous, and that always involve the client. In fact, a partner of one firm I consulted with captured the essence of a professional’s tangible deliverables when she called them a “souvenir” of the service. In fact, that is what they are in most cases — a souvenir of your actual service. That’s why these souvenirs are so important — they act as a surrogate for your service and give the client important signals about the quality of your work. Tangibles include tax returns, reports, newsletters, brochures, and all other communications the client receives from you. How you present and “dress” these important client communications is a crucial decision in terms of how you are perceived In other words clients ask themselves, “Do these people look like high quality, do they have a high-quality office, and do they produce a product with a high-quality look?”

Perception Is Reality and Feelings Are Facts

This is so important that I will repeat it: DEFINITION: Reality is whatever you can perceive clearly. Have you ever looked through a thick fog at a distant building? You couldn’t make it out very well; it looked sort of unreal. In fact, it might have been a mountain, or a billboard; you just couldn’t tell. For something to be real to you, you must not only perceive it; you must perceive it clearly. Because people cannot clearly perceive your technical expertise, they must rely on other things to indicate your competence. The key factor in client satisfaction is not how good you are at your profession, but how your clients perceive you — in other words, your image. And the key factor in marketing success is not how good you are at your profession, but how good prospects and referral sources think you are. Good marketing causes a client or referral source to think of you when they have the opportunity to recommend a professional. Your clients may not be able to tell how well you do research, but they can clearly perceive whether you keep your library neat. They may not know whether you are up on the latest developments in your specialty, but they notice if your receptionist mispronounces their name. They may not know how well you performed the service, but they know what your souvenirs look like. This perception-is-reality principle holds true because clients have no means to judge your internal quality or competence. So they fall back on those things they do feel competent to grade you on. Then their evaluation of these nontechnical areas carries over to your technical performance. This is important because perception is all there is. There is no reality as such. Reality to you is only what you perceive. And what you perceive is your reality. Clients are no different. To them, feelings are facts. As a former airline chairman once noted, “Coffee stains on the flip-down trays in our airplanes mean to the passengers that we do our engine maintenance wrong.” Likewise, a telephone operator in your firm who garbles your client’s message means to clients that you are also screwing up your service to them. However, there can also be positive effects of these two phenomena. In fact, the positive effects of these “rub-off” perceptions can be as beneficial as the negative effects are detrimental. Thus, many companies like to be identified as sponsoring public television programs and visible corporate citizenship programs locally. If you become membership chairperson of a club or organization and do a superlative job, or if you become a fund-raising chairman whose target is $50,000 and you raise $100,000, people will also think well of your professional abilities.

How to Project a High-Quality Image

DEFINITION: Image is a likeness or imitation of a person or thing; a mental picture or conception. It is perfectly clear that your image is not you. In fact, you could have an image that bears little or no resemblance to the real you. Your firm could also have an image that does not present an accurate representation of the caliber of service you render. In other words, your image might have little relationship to what you consider reality. Then why care what your image is? Because perception is reality. Clients’ and prospects’ perceptions or opinions about you and your firm determine their reality about you. When someone looks at you, what do they see? You might think they see you, but actually only about 5 percent of what they see is you; the rest is your appearance, including your clothes and haircut or hairdo! The overall effect they see creates a mental picture or conception that gives the viewer some clues as to what sort of professional you might be. For those who don’t know you, that image, and what you might say to them, is all the information they have with which to judge you. To them, that image is the real you. People get one message if you are wearing business attire, but they get a different message if you are wearing sports clothes. Your business suit, your tie or scarf, and your shirt or blouse give people tangible clues about who you are. These things can say, among other things, “This person means business,” or “This person doesn’t care.” How would they react if you were dressed for business otherwise, but you were wearing running shoes? They would probably be confused. To avoid confusing your clients or sending mixed messages, dress consistently. Create a commanding, confident image with consistent messages. The same applies to your firm. Everyone in your firm should project a high-quality image because the combined image created by your firm’s personnel gives the public clues as to what sort of firm you are. And for those who don’t know any different, your image is all the information they have to judge whether they want to talk to you about their professional needs. If someone ever gets to know you or your firm, they will certainly have a more accurate picture of the person you are and the firm you represent both professionally and personally. However, if you and your firm don’t make the right impression on others, you’ll never get the chance! In other words, if you don’t develop a positive, professional image of yourself and your firm in the minds of clients, potential clients, and referral sources, the odds are you will not get those referrals, nor will your clients recommend you to others. Though the cliché may seem unfair, it is true: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When asked to recommend a firm, what image first comes to clients’ and prospects’ minds when your name is mentioned?

Your Firm’s Image

Clients’ and prospects’ impressions of a firm are composed of:

  • Combined impressions of the firm’s personnel, particularly the frontline personnel;
  • The appearance of documents, reports, correspondence, newsletters, and other tangible products the client receives from the firm;
  • Office facilities and equipment.

Your Tangible Products

Your Report Covers and Tax Return Covers are Your Ambassadors. You have lots of “ambassadors” representing you when you aren’t around. I’m not just talking about the other people in your firm. Your tax covers, report covers, client newsletters, brochures, emails, announcements, business cards and so forth represent you when you aren’t there. Once you think about it, that’s why you have them, isn’t it? To represent your firm when you’re not there and to keep reminding people that you are available to serve them. How you “cover” these documents is one of the most cost effective marketing strategies you will find. KEY POINT: Make sure your ambassadors represent you well. Your client newsletter should project the right appearance. It’s better to spend a few extra dollars to get it typeset and printed on good quality paper with rather brief and elementary articles than to spend extra hours writing long, technically correct, scholarly pieces that no one but another professional would understand. The same principles apply to your report covers, tax return covers, seminar handouts, brochures, proposals, announcements, and any other tangible products you provide to your clients or referral sources. What images do they leave with the reader? Because prospective clients have little means of judging your internal quality, they rely on surrogates when choosing a new professional firm. Large organizations often interview or request proposals from several firms before selecting a new one. The problem is that they really don’t know what they’re doing when they pick “the best qualified firm.” So they use any available means to reduce the bewildering number of alternatives and make their choice easier. That’s why they ask for written proposals. Prospects use these proposals and brochures, not to choose a professional, but to eliminate some firms from further consideration. KEY POINT: A good looking tax return, report or proposal won’t get you any clients, but a bad appearance can put you out of the running.


Managing the tangibles also means to manage the tangible evidence or representation of the service — the “souvenir” as I call it. Because clients cannot hold your services in their hands like a manufactured product, they tend to pay special attention to the souvenirs as clues to your service quality. Depending on your profession, your souvenirs might include reports, tax returns, proposals, seminar documents, drawings, contracts, or financial statements. To clients, the quality of the souvenir indicates the quality of the service. Your clients may pay thousands of dollars for your services, and often all they have to show for it is a few pieces of paper containing your report. The value is in the opinion, not the physical report. But the physical report is the souvenir; it represents your clients’ hard-earned dollars. Make sure your reports and returns show off their value. Use heavy paper covers if you have the document bound. High quality cotton covers bound with systems that hide the staples or other fasteners create a very positive souvenir. Consider having your firm’s logo blind embossed (raised stamping in the paper without ink) on the cover page, or have your firm’s name engraved in the center at the bottom. Your graphics designer can show you samples. Many professionals use so-called raised printing, which is called thermography. Thermography is a process of printing with a special ink that bubbles up when exposed to heat. The newly printed sheets are passed under a flame and the ink bubbles to create the raised print. It is almost always shiny and of uneven texture. Printers will tell you “it’s just like engraving, only cheaper.” It’s not. It is cheap, and it looks cheap. The difference in cost between true engraving and thermography is minuscule when considered over a year or more. After buying the dies, the printing cost is only a few pennies more per sheet. Each and every one of your clients expects you to provide them with quality reports and tax returns. Are you ready to take these intangibles and make them outstanding tangibles? When you do, the client sees you as the professional who goes the extra mile and keeps returning as a loyal client year after year. And, they see you as so exceptional they refer others to you. If you can’t find enough points from your initial talks with the client to offer them a “Wow!” or a transformation, how will you ever collect premium fees? Offer them an experience or transformation or be ready to walk away. [dividerp top=”20″ bottom=”20″]



  • How do you visually present reports, tax returns, and all other documents to your clients?
  • Do you personalize every report and return so that the client feels important?
  • Do these documents say that you care about them (the client)?
  • What do your business cards and stationery say about you? Are they distinctive? Or do they look like everybody else’s?
  • Your clients pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for your services. Mostly, those services are intangible. The only physical evidence of the service is the written report. Does your report show its value?
  • Where do you get your client newsletter produced? What sort of appearance does it project?
  • Who writes your proposals, and how much care do the writers devote to them?

Manage the Tangibles

Managing the tangibles is concerned with shaping client opinions during and after your rendering of the service. The tangibles could be considered part of the “packaging” of your product. Recall that your ambassadors represent you all the time, and your service’s souvenirs are the only things clients have to show for the fees they paid you. Most businesses come closer to meeting customer expectations on the tangibles than on any other dimension, but even the tangibles still fall short of customer expectations. Think of one of your competitors’ offices that has really impressed you. Is there anything there you could adapt to your firm? Obtain samples of your competitors’ ambassadors and souvenirs, or get samples from firms in other cities with whom you do not compete. How do your ambassadors and souvenirs compare with theirs? Could you learn anything from them?