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Service Businesses Offer 3 Types of Products. The Most Powerful Ones Are Tools--Here's Why

No matter what business you're in, you want leverage. Leverage simply means getting the greatest returns with the least amount of energy.

I've spent my entire career running service businesses, as either a business consultant or keynote speaker. There is not a lot of leverage in these, as they are time-intensive endeavors that are difficult to repeat and don't always guarantee returns. However, service businesses can still gain leverage.

When thinking about the products your business can offer to customers, I find it helpful to categorize them into three buckets: "tell me," "enable me," and "do it for me." The second of these--"enable me"--is the best source of leverage.

Let's explore these further.

1. Tell me.

These products/services tell others how to do something. My speeches are "tell me" services. Books, CDs, DVDs, training seminars, and membership sites are "tell me" products. Often when people talk about products (especially in the world of professional speaking), these are typically the types of products they are referring to. Although these products are valuable, they are also the easiest to replicate or copy, and they require the client to do all the work.

For example, if you were an expert in public relations (PR), you could write a book on the topic of "targeting and reaching out to media contacts." The concepts of any book are easy enough for an unscrupulous competitor to copy. And more important, your client needs to do a lot of work: actually taking the time to research and call journalists.

2. Enable me.

The next level are enablement products. These go beyond simply telling you what to do. These are "tools" that enable things to happen. Using the PR example, an "enable me" product might be a press release writer or an article submitter. It's a tool that guides you through the process. Help a Reporter Out (HARO), a service that sends you daily emails from interested journalists, is also an enablement tool, as it minimizes the client's effort in finding and writing to journalists.

Enable me products create exceptional value because they are easy to use, eliminate the steep learning for the client, and automate many of the complicated steps. These tools are also harder to replicate, as the content is less static and more interactive.

3. Do it for me.

As the name implies, the "do it for me" level is where you do all of the work for your client. This is the traditional consulting model. Using PR as an example again, you could offer a retainer or a pay-for-performance model where you contact the media on behalf of your client. Although this most likely creates the greatest value for the client and requires the least amount of time on their part, it is also their most expensive option. And it is the most time-intensive option for the service provider, offering very little leverage.

Among the three types of prodcuts, the sweet spot is the "enable me." You increase the value delivered and therefore can charge a premium. You make it more difficult for others to copy because you have embedded your specific expertise into a product. And you still gain leverage because you can build it once and sell it many times (unlike consulting). Enablement tools bottle your expertise -- it's like hiring you to do the job ("do it for me"), without you actually having to do the work.

Do not assume that these tools require complicated or expensive technology. I developed a deck of cards as an enablement tool that involves no technology. It is a specially designed set of poker cards that helps people determine their personality style and enables them to create high-performing teams.

As an aside, one added advantage of physical tools (versus technical tools) is I can use them with groups in real time. I use these cards with audiences during my speeches and workshops. They love it, and it creates demand for the product while I'm on stage, without my needing to do a sales pitch. Enablement tools are often much more than an app, and a lot simpler to create.

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