Services or Products As Your Career Focus

Have you ever thought about whether you want services or products as your career focus? Understanding the differences between these two possibilities can help you to choose or change to a work direction that is best for your interests, personality, and skills. I interviewed people with both of these types of careers to get their perspective about their day-to-day experiences with their jobs.
Service-Focused Career

Tangible vs. Subjective Measurement

Mary Whitney, founder of Women Planting Seeds, is a leader and developer of social change. Ms. Whitney has worked in both service and product-focused roles. She observes that with a product-focused job, you know exactly what is expected of you and the results are easy to measure. By contrast, the most difficult challenge with a service-focused effort is to quantify the success of what you have achieved. Funders ask Ms. Whitney to show metrics for her work with clients and she works to quantify variables that are subjective. She says,

“It is a victory when a homeless client begins to shower regularly and dress in clean clothes, but this is difficult to measure. By contrast, a product-based endeavor is more easily quantified. When I am selling a product, you can easily tally up by the amount of sales I made compared to another person’s total. You can easily tell that Walmart sells more products than quite a few other stores in comparison to the markets they serve.”

Time to market is usually faster with service-oriented businesses. Ms. Whitney comments,

“It is often easier to convince a client to attend a workshop (service) than to buy and read a self-help book (product).”

Problem-Solving vs. Self-Expression

Sara Martin is an artist, writer, and designer. Ms. Martin describes herself as a “creative, expressive person,” and she says her years in business have taught her how her business model affects her satisfaction with work.

Ms. Martin notes,

“In a service business, your job is to facilitate the success of your clients. Their success is your success. The client gets to set the metrics for what constitutes success. You, the service provider, may develop opinions about the best course of action for your client, but at the end of the day, it’s not your call. This business model is great for people who enjoy solving puzzles, or finding many possible solutions to a given problem. If your creativity is satisfied when you solve a problem for someone, this model will work for you.

That’s not how my creativity works. I desire self-expression. My greatest satisfaction comes from putting myself out there and seeing who I attract. Product business models make this possible. A product model is great for people with high idea productivity. The main challenge is finding the intersection between your self-expression and the market. This intersection will not happen with every idea, so resilience is key.”

Upfront Investment

Duane Preiss, Business Development Manager for 3M Mobile Interactive Solutions Division, is in a product-focused career. He says,

“It is rewarding to deal with multiple entities and technologies required to develop a product and to watch the evolution from idea and concept to scale-up and launch. However, product launches can require significant financial outlay in the form of R&D and capital expense, and if the product fails to delight the customer, there is no guarantee of a good return on the investment.”

Direct Connection vs. Behind-The-Scenes

Laura George, a business consultant for artists, says that people choosing a career path should reflect on whether they want to connect directly with others or to be more behind-the scenes. Ms. George observes,

“There’s nothing like getting to build deep relationships with your customers. With a service-based business you are almost forced to interact with your customers on a personal and emotional level because you’re working for their needs. You end up discussing their needs, and thus their emotions. And of course, you offer the best service when you do build a relationship with them and become invested in their well being. It’s a very joyful situation. On the flip side, product-focused businesses are inspiring because of the initial creation process. Manufacturing (unless you craft your products by hand) and delivery are not full of life and spirit. But the conceptualizing and design… those are full of passion and love.”


Ms. George also mentions one of the biggest differences between services and products, which is the limitation of time. Because of this limitation, service businesses can be tough to scale. Ms. George elaborates,

“With a service-based business, no one else can be “you.” You can’t find someone to take on half your clients without completely restructuring your business, and if you do hire employees or contractors, you have to carefully oversee everything they do. With a product-based business, it is easier to grow larger, because you can outsource different aspects of the business, everything from manufacturing to customer service.”

Clarity and Concreteness

Michael Civitelli, Director of Sales and Business Development / Parking for SWARCO, says,

“The biggest rewards in a product based role are the clarity and the concreteness of the business solutions. My customers know what I am offering them: I sell products that enhance mobility and parking systems. When I was a consultant, a big part of the job was helping the client to define the deliverable. Once a consulting report is generated, the recommendations may or may not be implemented. With products, it is much more clear to the client what the product is and what they will do with it once they buy it.”

The Challenge of Commoditization

Some creative service professionals say the market has shifted from a creative thinking (service) focus to a commodity (product) focus where clients ask questions like, “How much will it cost to get a brochure done?” Rick Tuckerman, Creative Marketing Director of ZoomIQ2, warns,

“It takes thick skin, courage of conviction, and lots of patience to succeed in a creative services career. The “business” of creative services requires working within tight budgets, dealing with the whims and misgivings of well-intentioned smaller clients, and gauging the relationship between their time, a client’s budget and the ability to work fast and efficient enough to generate a decent income. Understand that to some degree, selling your ideas are just as important as creating them.”

It’s All Service?

Finally, from a customer service perspective, John Tschohl, founder of The Service Quality Institute and author of Achieving Excellence Through Customer Service, says even if you’re in the product business you’re still in the service business. He says:

“To be the best in the service business means to be empowered to make decisions in favor of the customer, to be a people person, to be speedy and to offer resolutions to problems that come up. If you don’t have the answer, you find someone who does. It’s about taking care of details or the little things that most people miss. It’s about making the customer experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible.”

Your Turn

So what do you think? Do you work in a service-focused job, a product-focused job, or both? Do you like it? What should others know to make the best career decision?

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