Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Form vs. Substance

Recently, my area’s only daily, the Peninsula Daily News, was purchased by a Canadian newspaper conglomerate. In an interview, a company representative was very clear about their mission: “We are not in the business of putting ink on paper. We are in the business of providing our readers with timely, relevant news and information that can make a difference in their lives.”
I found this statement striking because it expressed the company’s laser focus on what its product really is. It reminded me that all too often we confuse what we’re getting with the means by which it’s delivered – the classic form vs. substance dilemma.
Those of us in the design world push against this daily. Many of our clients assume that we produce pretty pictures, shiny brochures and flashy web sites because that’s what they see. This is partly because the processes we use are invisible to clients, who only see the end result. This affects other professional services as well.
The confusion also exists because we often don’t define our product with as much clarity as the newspaper described above. We have to do a better job of conveying our true product: thoughtful and strategic marketing tools that communicate our clients’ value. I think a way to clear this up in clients’ minds is to describe our services and products in terms of the benefits they deliver, not in terms of what they are made of.
So attorneys might describe their product as a thoughtfully structured estate plan that protects one’s heirs, not as a 5-page will. An accountant might position tax services as a means to preserve capital and stay out of trouble with the IRS, not as a filled-out 1040. A doctor delivers life-saving diagnoses, not 10 minutes in an exam room.
With the growth of online do-it-yourself/quick-and-dirty options for professional services, it is more necessary than ever for us to clearly state our value in the form of our services' benefit to our clients. Otherwise they will have little basis for choosing between WebMD and their primary care provider, H&R Block and their accountant, or CrowdSpring and their designer.

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