These days, it is fashionable to sell a product or a service as an “experience.”

“We don’t sell homes,” a big builder’s recent advertisement proclaimed, “We give you a lifetime of experience.”

Excuse me, Mr. Builder, but is that a residential building or an amusement park we are talking about?

People who claim to sell experiences rarely understand what it takes to really do so. A frozen lasagna in a supermarket is a product, delivering it to your door is a service, but serving it with a smile in a restaurant is an experience. What characterizes a true experience that makes it so hard to deliver?

For starters, it is hard to sell an experience because it is a nebulous and subjective concept that can neither be seen like a product, nor described and spec’d like a service. That requires a greater leap of faith for a customer.

An experience also needs constant engagement between the buyer and the seller throughout the life of that experience. Such engagement is necessary because an experience does not have a “warranty period.” You would not like a restaurant that guarantees only the first hour of your lunch. The seller better be around the whole time to ensure that they deliver the total experience. Mr. Builder will leave after the warranty period and you are left with a dream—or a nightmare.

An experience is also more than the sum of its product and service. In a restaurant, beyond the food and service, what also matters is the ambience, other patrons and many minor details. Any of these have the potential to mar the entire experience. Unlike a car that can be customized or replaced, or a home that can be remodeled to your liking, a customer cannot or does not do that to an experience. That is because an experience is inherently short-lived (but long-remembered) and often completely discretionary. Hence, the onus is on the provider to get it right in its entirety, every time, for every customer with every quirk and pet peeve.

A short-duration experience, such as a meal in a restaurant, is inherently harder to sell and deliver than a longer-duration one. The shorter the duration of the experience, the more amplified every little annoyance the customer feels. A kid screaming at the next table can mar a two-hour restaurant experience more easily than it can a two-week vacation.

A true experience is where the expected value proposition is the experience itself; not just the product or service, but all of it. I go to a shop to buy a shirt—not an experience. I may have a memorable or forgettable journey along the way, but my perceived value is in the shirt, not the experience of buying it. The seller has to focus only on their value proposition: the shirt and how it is sold.

That is why Mr. Builder makes those of us who sell true experiences mad. Just ask your local restaurateur.