The TL;DR* of this article
*Too Long, Didn't Read
The Major Shift Taking Place Right Now
The modern consumer is empowered by technology and has many options for research at his fingertips.
Everything Contributes to the Buying Experience
Buyers don't make decisions arbitrarily—they usually choose the most enjoyable purchase journey.
Understanding The Entire Customer Experience
The customer journey is circular, not linear, beginning and ending with ongoing exposure.
Takeaways for Marketers: Practical Examples
Learn how other companies connect the dots so you can, too.
Do you remember the very first time you tried to sell something as part of your job?
Unless you were a natural, it was probably difficult. Awkward, even. After all, sales is inherently a rough business—you’re asking potential customers to fork over a specific amount of money in exchange for a service or goods and a promised outcome. And many of those customers have been burned by other promises in the past.
Phrased that way, it’s a wonder anything ever gets sold at all, no matter how good the pitch is. But, as we all know, things do get sold—all the time, in every conceivable industry. Consumers, as the name implies, well… consume. But today’s consumer isn’t the same as yesterday’s—a new reality that has been unfolding rapidly before our eyes since the advent of widespread Internet access.
When other options are widely available, is it any surprise that a majority of consumers have switched brands because of a poor experience, or that they are willing to pay a premium if it means a better experience?
Quality of Experience — Give More, Get More
We all want to have amazing experiences, in our personal lives and in business. We build our bucket lists and spend money based on what we think will give us the best, most exciting, most enduring memories. The sublime experience.
Here’s the thing: Your customers are also looking for a sublime experience when they do business with your company. Heck, we all prefer great experiences over bad ones, right?
When was the last time you woke up and hoped for a mediocre day? When did you see “call cable company” on your to-do list and think to yourself, “Oh boy, I hope I get a rep who reads from a script and can’t really fix my problem!”
Nope, doesn’t happen—we all want amazing customer experiences. We’re even willing to pay a little more for it, share those experiences with our friends and family, and promote a company we love and believe in.
Most businesses are noticing and reacting to an enormous shift in the market, but only the smart ones are able to tap into it effectively. We’ll cover this shift in the next section, and explore how your business can take advantage.
The Major Shift Taking Place Right Now
Within the last decade, we have seen more transformations in the way we do business than at any other time in recorded history. The shift to digital, the move to globalization—these are mere components of the revolution. There are changes coming that will make the future look as unfamiliar to us as a slide rule does to a teenager.
The business world of the future is radically different from almost anything we can imagine today, thanks in large part to the rise of an emergent group of tremendous importance: the empowered customer.
The topics that marketers love to talk about—social media, eCommerce, CRO, UX/UI, Big Data, etc.—are only contributing factors in the rise of the empowered consumer and the revolution those consumers will bring to the business world. What’s happening here is a peaceful transfer of power from retailers to consumers. Where the consumer was once informed, he is now truly empowered. He can dictate change at the highest levels of business. And the consequences for businesses who fail to grasp this fundamental reversal of roles in the marketplace may face extinction sooner than they think.
Now, I want to take a closer look at how this transfer of power occurs and why you must adapt your marketing strategies. If you can’t (or won’t) adapt, you’re at risk of providing mediocre customer experiences that ultimately lead to disappointment and failure.
We’re All Empowered Consumers
Modern consumers are just a swipe or click away from a world of knowledge. With all the new tools of the Internet at their disposal, consumers aren’t going to sit around and wait for marketers to push out select information to them.
Today, consumers can choose the information they want to pull towards them. Rather than simply accepting what’s sent their way, consumers are taking control of their own buying journey.
Key Touch Points of the Customer Journey
It’s easy to see how each customer journey is an individual experience unlike the rest, and the phrase “empowered customers” may sound intimidating, but consider this: The means of research and discovery for all of these customers are universal.
Internet Research & Mobile
Consumers now research their purchases more often and more extensively than ever before. In fact, four out of five of consumers research products online before making big purchases. And with that information just a few minutes away, why wouldn’t they?
Consumer research doesn’t stop once they enter a store. It happens on the fly, too. If you’re careful, you can win every micro-moment with a better mobile strategy because around 82 percent of smartphone owners research a product they’re about to buy, right there in the store.
Modern buyers actively seek out an incredible amount of information compared to consumers from ten years ago, and sales needs to evolve to keep up with the trend. The top three preferred content channels for people researching a product are:
- Search engines
- Official brand websites
- Newsletters and emails
Your sales team likely knows this. Recent surveys show that 57% of people who work in sales see that power has shifted to buyers.
(Image courtesy of HubSpot.)
Thanks to social media, consumers are subject to far more passive branding impressions than ever before. Before prospective leads perform online research, before they are even considering a purchase, they are actively absorbing brand awareness and forming impressions about the brand. Marketers involved in PPC ad campaigns know the value here: clicks are more likely to happen when consumers already know about a brand.
Customer-Driven Content on Review Sites
Customer-driven content has forced marketers into a two-way conversation. Between review sites and social media, the consumer’s voice is louder than ever. You can choose to ignore that voice and face an uphill battle to market your products effectively, or you can embrace the way consumers are talking with and listening to each other and contribute to that conversation. Can you guess which approach I recommend? I’ll give you a hint: It’s the approach successful companies are using.
Whether they’re still in the research phase or on the verge of buying, about half of consumers rely heavily on product ratings or reviews. Peer experiences also play heavily into the decision-making process and represent the third-most popular form of content consumers look for during their buyer journey.
Everything Contributes to the Buying Experience
In the same way most companies get a feel for the market before they start selling anything, consumers don’t make purchases arbitrarily. They interact with others and learn about the products, brands, and experiences that they are looking for. They have conversations with retailers and other consumers. They ask questions, get answers, and evaluate those answers carefully. They research.
If you’re not on board with the concept of “the customer experience” or “customer journey to purchase”, you may soon find yourself with precious few buyers who engage with your brand, let alone buy your product.
Customers have expectations. Sometimes those expectations seem unfair or too high, but they’re still there. An incredible product or a state-of-the-art app isn’t enough to make up for a disappointing overall experience.
Target may generally have slightly higher prices than Wal-Mart, but some of us are willing to pay that little extra to know that you’ll get a cart with wheels that roll in the right direction.
You can probably think of a similar personal example, some reason why you continue to do business with one company over another. And that’s exactly why the customer experience (CX) matters so much.
But the Journey Doesn’t Stop There
If you want your business to be a regular stop on your customers’ journeys, you need to spend time and resources on the entire path those customers follow from beginning to end. And remember: The end is not the purchase. Far from it. In fact, the customer experience encompasses the buyer’s impressions of the product, the service, and the company long after the purchase has been made.
Once you start looking at the customer journey as a long-term relationship, you’ll see why things like loyalty programs are key. Consider using post-purchase customer service outreach (phone, email, SMS), carefully constructed and targeted future offers, and other specific ways to gauge perception of your brand after the purchase has been made.
Each one of these factors ties into future decision-making processes and is as important to marketers as the ones from the pre-purchase journey.
That’s Why the Old Sales Funnel Doesn’t Work Any Longer
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about things that have changed, but it’s just as important to realize what hasn’t changed: marketers still have to try and reach consumers at the right time, during critical decision-making moments leading up to the purchase. These are called “touchpoints,” and at one point were only considered to be part of the short time leading up to a purchase in a physical store.
Marketers defined the buying process based on filtering. They thought that prospective buyers always started out with a large number of options (brands), narrowed them down to just a few contenders, and then made a decision close to the time they entered the store, where they were likely to be influenced by salespeople.
That’s the real problem—the old sales funnel was created from the perspective of the people behind the sale, not the buyer.
Of course, the customer journey doesn’t stop after the sale, so the old-fashioned, limited view of the sales process no longer works. When we talk about marketing, we must think not of the old sales funnel but rather the modern marketing funnel that truly represents what happens during the entirety of the customer experience.
Understanding The Entire Customer Experience
For successful brands, the real customer journey is circular, not linear. Research into the buyer’s journey shows a circular process carried out by extremely empowered consumers that looks something like this:
- Ongoing exposure
- Buying trigger
- Initial consideration phase
- Back to ongoing exposure
See how it starts and ends with ongoing exposure? That’s key, because it’s how we know that this process is circular. The “ongoing exposure” in step one may include impressions formed during a previous purchase experience with a brand.
Here’s how that works, and what it means for marketers:
Consumers Learn About Brands During the Ongoing Exposure Phase
Accumulated impressions lie dormant in consumer consciousness until they become activated. That occurs when something triggers the impulse to research, then buy. Those impressions, which could come from social media, conversations on and offline, and many other sources, affect the initial round of options the consumer considers when preparing to purchase. This is called the initial consideration set.
If your marketing efforts have been focused on your customer, your brand will be included in that set.
The Customer Journey is One Large Interconnected Feedback Loop
Consumer expectations are based on the experience from the first purchase. Those expectations will come into play once they enter the loop again, which is immediately. Even if a consumer isn’t actively looking to make a purchase, he’s undergoing ongoing exposure to brands.
This is why we’re referring to this as a loop. Consumers circle back around immediately after purchase, jumping into the schema at step one, until a new buying trigger pops up. In fact, we’re always in that loop somewhere (even when we’re not aware of it), and we can usually be found treading water in the ongoing exposure phase, constantly absorbing marketing messages as we go about our daily lives.
In other words, the post-purchase buying experience factors in heavily for all future purchases. The post-purchase experience is just as important as any other part of the customer journey.
The loop concept is helpful for illustrating this, but don’t forget that the loop doesn’t just include your brand. It’s critical for marketers and businesses to remember that consumers aren’t “yours” just because they happened to choose your product the first time around. Even when they’re not in buying mode, those customers are still susceptible to impressions of other brands. You have to earn their loyalty. That’s not an easy task.
Capturing Loyalty in the Post-Purchase Phase
Consumers can be swayed – everyone knows that. In fact, sales and marketing people rely on it: you need to convince someone to actually make a purchase. But you can’t rest on your laurels after that. Sure, they chose you this time, but chances are, your customers are likely open to considering other brands for future purchases. We call this passive loyalty.
After the sale, your brand will be included in your customer’s consideration pool next time around, but you probably haven’t turned your buyer into a brand ambassador yet. Not after a single purchase, anyway.
You also can’t assume that you’ve secured a spot in the consideration pool after that initial purchase. Your competition may be working just as hard as you are to expose customers to their brand, and can insert themselves at any point to divert attention away from your brand — even if the customer has chosen your product in the past.
This isn’t meant to sound scary; it’s reality. And the truth is, if you miss the boat on hitting the post-purchase marketing touch points, this can easily happen to you. Never be satisfied with passive loyalty.
Active loyalty, which I have discussed in the Bow-Tie Funnel post on my In the Know blog, is what you’re after. This type of loyalty elicits sharing, promoting, and writing positive reviews of your product or service across the many channels consumers use. When you have actively loyal customers, their initial consideration phase during the customer journey will include only your brand or a very short list of brands that includes yours.
The Active Evaluation Phase: What Mad Men Were After
Once the consumer’s purchase desire has been triggered and they have an initial consideration set, he begins evaluating the products/brands in that set. We call this active evaluation.
We all know what happens during active evaluation. This is what those larger-than-life ad men focused on in the golden age of advertising exemplified in the TV show, Mad Men. If you’re Don Draper, you would focus your advertising dollars on this segment of the Customer Journey. Don would have assumed that his goal was capturing consumers during active evaluation. He’d narrow the field (remember the old sales funnel), and a few well-placed TV commercials or magazine ads would seal the deal.
In reality, during today’s customer journey, things can turn out very differently. How many times have you started researching a service only to discover that there were more options than you thought? During this phase, the number of brands being considered by a customer may actually increase! Again, this obliterates the visual image of the old sales funnel — unless you can picture a major bulge in it.
Once a purchasing trigger is activated, consumers might start to notice marketing they’d never noticed before. That’s when they can become aware of new brands, and the consideration set grows.
Active Evaluation is Largely Based on Consumer-Driven Content
When consumers are narrowing the field of candidates, it stands to reason that they would seek content that helps them make an informed decision. And so, during the active evaluation phase, consumer-driven content drives the boat. In fact, most of the information gathered by consumers during active evaluation is:
- Word of mouth
- Interactions in the store
- Previous purchase experience
CX is a Hot Topic, But Not a New One
The best example of CX principles in action that I’ve come across is Steve Jobs. As far back as 1985, he spoke about caring for the customer, StoryVesting, and ongoing exposure to brands: three basic CX principles.
Shortly after Jobs left Apple and while forming his new company, NeXT, he laid out his vision for the company. At a retreat with his small group of startup partners, he gave them a primer on StoryVesting:
“For NeXT , we want people to know we really care about them. One of my largest wishes is that we build NeXT from the heart and people who are coming to work for us or going to buy our products, that we’re doing this because we have a passion about it.”
– Steve Jobs on Forming NeXT
Beyond just talking about ideas, Jobs showed he really understood CX. He knew about the importance of ongoing exposure to the brand, even when consumers weren’t in an active buying phase. His “computer camps” brought developers from all over the country to learn about the software and form long-term relationships.
What Steve Jobs believed then, and what I believe today, is that once people move into position to buy, they will already have a favorable view of the product from education, demos, software camp, and anything else a marketing department comes up with to increase exposure before buying triggers even kick in.
The best organizations don’t just preach about CX, they live it. Take a look at these results from a Hubspot research survey, where they asked C-level executives and VPs about how they prioritize customer success:
[The customer-centric approach used by leading organizations isn’t about buzzwords, but adopting the right mindset—that of architecting and crafting experiences that customers crave.
Takeaways for Marketers: Practical Examples
I love expounding on this sort of thing, but I’m not satisfied by theory alone. So let’s take a look at some practical takeaways for marketers who want to heighten the focus on customer experience at their own companies.
Align Marketing with the Right Touch Points Along the Full Customer Journey
I could go on and on here about how well Steve Jobs did this sort of thing 30 years ago — supplying consumers with ongoing exposure to his brand through education and word of mouth, understanding what the customer really wanted, building a company that had vision and operated from the heart — but that alone won’t go far very in helping you improve your company’s CX.
So, what should marketers do to ensure they’re using the right techniques at the right moments during the customer journey? What, specifically, can they do to improve the customer experience?
Continue improving UX.
I spend a lot of timing writing about CX, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you get the impression that I believe the user experience (UX) no longer matters. But UX is still very relevant. Without UX, CX just wouldn’t be that great. UX, together with user interface (UI), is a subset of CX. UX arose from the need to make the customer’s purchasing experience as pleasant and seamless as possible, with the ultimate goal of enhancing a brand’s status in the eye of the consumer.
UX has an important role in guiding the form and function of online and mobile experiences, but it also can (and should) make life easier for consumers.
For example, this can be done by using push notifications (for mobile) with very specific and targeted sequences. These can be event-driven by date (tax season), an event (Superbowl game), the weather (rain), or a combination of these (hurricane season in Florida).
Digging even deeper, you could also connect your product to an event. Let’s say you sell glasses in a retail store. Using geofencing and beacon technology, you could send push notifications to consumers, who would receive a prompt that allows them to shop for glasses that come with a 2-year warranty and a free eye exam. As far as the consumer is concerned, that’s not just another sales pitch – it’s life made easier.
To drive this point home, the stats support this: push notification click-through rates can be as high as 40% in some industries.
Another simple example: animated notification gifs within mobile apps that drive awareness. These don’t take up tons of memory and they’re not hard to create — but they do have high levels of engagement.
UX is so important, in fact, that both Apple and Android have released important guidelines and best practices for developers, outlining exactly how these actions should be used for ease of use and maximum impact; make sure your app development team knows about them.
Learn about the touchpoints and the micro-moments in the customer journey for your business, then see how they blend across offline and online channels.
If “touchpoints” still sounds abstract to you, boil it down this way: Where do your customers come from? Do they buy from you after seeing a flier in-store, then visiting a landing page from that flier, then viewing a retargeting ad in social media, prompting them to action? Or does email come into play somewhere? How about organic search?
These are just a few of the touchpoints businesses can use to reach consumers along the buyer journey. Combine the powerful forces of mobile and social, and we have more touchpoints than ever. Many of them are now instantaneous, offering immediate contact when the buyer wants it, needs it, or asks for it. In other words, you can now be there in the moment, which is often when consumers are making important decisions.
No matter how much you learn about touchpoints for your business, keep things in perspective. Focusing only on the messaging touchpoints within a single channel is like working with blinders on. If you have a holistic, CX-driven approach, all your touchpoints should interface with one another across offline and online channels.
Focus on managing customer-driven content.
Try to visualize content creation differently. Focus on ways to give consumer-driven marketing a platform, such as user reviews and consumer-managed personal stories/photos. This can take place on social media, but the focus should shift away from purchasing media ads to cultivating and sharing real content, feedback, education, and service.
For another example, put time and resources into building dynamic tools on your website to provide consumers with effective assets they can use to make their own purchasing decisions. As we now know, consumers are no longer content to wait around for marketers to force-feed them information. They’re pursuing it themselves, on their own terms.
Find your weak touchpoints and bottlenecks along the customer journey.
Every company must develop specific touchpoints. For some, it may be about increasing brand awareness. Others might have a lackluster loyalty program. And many need to shore up their informational properties (company blog, social media feeds, etc.).
If needed, you can always tailor your messaging to address weak points along the customer journey.
Use in-store visuals to your advantage.
The complex, circular customer journey means that consumers now make their purchasing decisions in-store. Therefore, factors like in-store displays and packaging become more important.
And, if you don’t have a physical store, consider how visuals impact your message. Could you improve the checkout experience for online orders? Do your emails look modern and professional?
Connect your segregated marketing modules.
In order to reliably improve CX, marketers must align ALL parts of marketing with the customer journey. That means companies who separate digital platforms from loyalty programs and sales must find a way to combine those disparate departments under a single marketing chief for an integrated approach.
Solidify your company vision to create a unique customer experience.
Customers have always been crucial to a company’s survival and growth, but because they seek an enriched experience when they shop, and now have the power and means to find it, company vision has become increasingly important. If your company offers shared values, and consumers see a way to enrich their lives through your brand (rather than just a place to buy merchandise), you’re winning. Running the show from the heart is the best way to get started, and Steve Jobs had that down pat, too:
“More important than building a product, we are in the process of architecting a company that will hopefully be much more incredible than the sum of its parts. One of the things that made Apple great was that in the early days, we built that company from the heart and that people knew that.” – Steve Jobs, 1985
Make the whole company focused on CX by encouraging StoryVesting.
Find a way to integrate your various marketing elements into every part of the organization so that everyone in the company can take an active role in marketing, guided by a healthy company vision that puts the customer journey first.
Whether it’s by providing better customer service, staying late to make sure a freelancer gets her check, or whatever else it takes—employees who believe in the company vision and who become vested in that message will help the company in so many ways.
Give the consumer an official voice in your company.
Designate a position in your company which includes the responsibility of being the voice of the consumer. As Steve Jobs put it in 1985, “there needs to be someone who is the keeper or re-iterator of the vision.”
The rise of the empowered customer and subsequent scrambling of marketers to accommodate that shift in power has brought the customer experience to the forefront of the discussion. Companies who can align marketing efforts with a strong, unique company vision (or story, if you prefer) and educate consumers about their brand at the right moments along the customer journey will fare better in the new era.
What companies are finding, however, is that in order to bring these notions to life and act upon them effectively, they’re looking at massive restructuring within their organizations. The challenge of moving from a traditional channel and tactic-chasing organization to an innovative and modern CX data-driven organization is no easy task, and that’s why I created RocketSource: to help companies envision, structure, and implement transformative, end-to-end CX initiatives that drive real growth.