The classic challenge of marketing IT services is USP – Five areas to focus on

I remember a contact who told me their IT services business had no USP, or unique selling proposition. True, for companies marketing IT services the USP may not be apparent at a quick glance, but marketing’s role is to change this. IT service is becoming increasingly competitive, so if an organisation cannot present valid reasons to engage, it will always lose out to competitors on bids and pricing.

This article is for IT consultancies, cloud services providers, managed service providers and XaaS providers, which can build large recurring revenues. It is a topic I feel quite passionate about, having worked in and around this sector for most of my career.

At first sight, service providers may seem to offer similar services and solutions which are interchangeable. But why not look at this in a positive way instead of a negative way? You have a blank canvass upon which to present the business as it really is and highlight its best features.

IT services are generally sold as solutions – i.e. the vendor provides a solution that answers a problem that customers cannot solve on their own. Since MSPs can manage their customers’ entire IT infrastructures, including cyber-security, technology migrations and upgrades, they must earn 100% trust from their customers. The challenge today is the modern, supplier-agnostic customer.

Marketing IT services: are all providers alike?

The challenge is to portray your business as the right choice for a new customer, to justify this with good reasons and build trust. This means understanding the company’s brand, its operations and its people and presenting these in the best way.

The visible branding of a business comprises its logo, colours and corporate livery. The IT sector seems to favour the cool blue which sits well in the urban professional world. Associated with this are the visual messages in your marketing – website and documents – often images of your team, HQ building, and sector pictures. All these provide a first-glance snapshot of what your company does, for whom, and how. This part of identity is understood almost unconsciously, but needs to be 100% up to date in style, and fitting for the industry it serves.

Beneath all this, when you discover a business in more detail, you begin to appreciate what makes it unique, and what might actually form a USP. Every business is different and each one will suit a different segment of customers, which they should prioritise.

Identifying the USP

IT services cover many areas: IT “plumbing”, support and maintenance, IT security, back-up and business continuity are the main areas. Cyber security is currently a high priority. The company’s choice of technical partners and vendors may colour how these services are provided.

The IT services business operates to provide specialist IT skills, along with in-house software, user interface, patents and IP. Technical skills are crucial, as customers are choosing managed services to access expertise they don’t have in-house.

Understanding how the business operates, technically, and where it differs from its competition, may reveal a real USP. This means it is important to study competitors and  understand the genuine differences between them.

Shaping USP– service design

If there is no technical USP, there may be a commercial one, or perhaps one can be created through careful service design. Elements of service can be bundled or packaged, with service level agreements and guarantees. Pricing and billing can be designed to suit customers better and make a real difference.

How a service is delivered matters too – the customer experience. Good service should be shaped to nurture existing customers and help win new ones. Making the service easier for customers is a popular goal. The most successful service design will be based on deep insights into customer relationships gained from research or account manager feedback.

Enhancing service might mean coaching the customer-facing team, adding expert advice, or publishing data that shows support calls rapidly resolved. There is an interesting current trend towards using automation to enhance customer service.

Bring USPs to life with Marketing and PR

IT service providers need to prove their worth and earn customer trust through their marketing.

A customer’s decision process starts online and they will study websites before they meet providers. Websites should avoid business jargon and bland corporate profiles that try to be everything to everybody but actually mean meaning nothing at all.

Creating a personality for services business is about people, so it may be helpful to consider designing a website for a services-based business as you would consider writing a CV. Like a CV, it the company’s description needs to be evidence-based and relevant. Customer success stories should say: “These are the markets and business situations we understand, and this is how we help.”

As with a CV, it is good to add non-commercial interests that people care about, such as the charities you support, your social events and your role in the community.

If the business campaigns in its industry, or has important environmental policies, these too could be reasons why a customer would choose to work with you.

Beware total reliance on content marketing, which has become incredibly competitive, with  every company following the same path of inbound-SEO, leads capture and nurturing. The market is very crowded, and everyone is using the same processes. Content marketing is a process, not a communications strategy – communications should revolve around messages, stories, concepts and facts.

To use the military analogy, marketing services is about winning hearts and minds. People and personalities – the character and experience of the CEO and leadership team, the customer-facing colleagues and how they are trained to help – are all part of the story.

Five areas to focus on
  1. Tell the back story – how the business came to be will interest people and inspire.
  2. Be transparent about technology and tools, and how the service really works. Communicate what you do differently or better.
  3. Demonstrate capability – show how you help customers today.
  4. Shine a spotlight on charismatic leaders and key customer-facing employees in interviews and blogs.
  5. Share your plan – where is your industry going and what is your place in it?

Success comes from understanding USPs, then presenting the right facts, achievements and thought leadership to the market. Present your company transparently by telling your story as it is. Use PR to reach out beyond your customer base.