Your customers have left the straight-and-narrow. No, they’re (probably) not stealing products or cheating on taxes. But neither are they following the linear buying process that most customers once did.
The Fall of the Funnel
Traditionally, the customer journey from product awareness to familiarity, consideration, purchase and finally loyalty was straight , with uncertainty diminishing at each step. A typical customer entered the purchase funnel with a number of potential brands in mind, and through a linear process of research, narrowed their choice to the brand they ultimately purchased. And unless the product they settled on at the end of the process was disappointing, most customers could be counted on to remain loyal and continue purchasing that brand indefinitely.
The explosion of product choices, purchase channels, and product information has enabled consumers to be more discerning than ever. It has also added a good deal of complexity to the decision-making process. While we still speak in terms of purchase funnels, the purchase journeys of today’s multi-screen, multi-tasking, cross-channel consumers more closely resemble, in truth, a swirl.
Consideration and Evaluation
Today, the customer journey takes consumers from a relatively limited initial consideration set to an active evaluation period of shopping and information gathering prior to purchase. Following the moment of purchase, through ongoing experience customers build expectations that inform both their own subsequent purchase journeys and their input into the active evaluation and information gathering of others within their circle of influence.
Remarkably, considering the proliferation of available products, customers today generally have a smaller initial consideration set than their pre-digital peers, largely due to the inability of marketers to break through media clutter and noise in order to make an impression on consumers. In an interesting reversal, however, customers’ consideration sets expand rather than narrowing in the next stage of their purchase journey — active evaluation.
In the past, customers relied on information that was carefully crafted by marketers in order to reach an informed decision. Today, however, consumers have unquestionably taken charge. One-way producer-to-prospect communication has been replaced by a range of multi-participant conversations between prospects, customers and producers. Social media makes countless conversations between customers and businesses available to prospects, presenting prospects with myriad detailed accounts of customer experiences. As prospects continue to gather information, they move seamlessly across channels, considering options and assessing alternatives.
Influencing the Purchase Decision
In a world where the customer is king, maximizing the customer experience is the best way to generate the positive word-of-mouth that convinces prospects to become customers.
Here are some ways to create customer experience that drive conversions:
- Know what you want. Set clear customer experience objectives and strategies for reaching them. Understand what kinds of experiences are likely to delight customers and make sure to deliver them. Conversely, gather feedback and quickly act to address negative customer experiences before customers go public.
- Make it iterative. Start small, with issues that obviously need improvement. Do simple split tests, and listen to customers for insight into what additional changes would help.
- Stay with your customers. Know where they do research and how they prefer to interact. Target the channels where they seek information. Customer preferences change quickly: Be ready to move when they do.
- Gather data and use it. Collect customer feedback on all channels and use it to gain insight into what is important to them. Tailor your customer experience to meet their needs and preferences. Deliver a consistent, customer-pleasing experience across all channels. Repeat.
Customer experience is not merely a soft, feel-good benefit: In addition to increasing the number of conversions, research shows that 56% of customers are willing to pay more for a product when the customer experience is positive.
The Importance of the Customer Experience
The iterative and social qualities of the customer journey swirl mean that customer experiences –both positive and negative — have a powerful impact on customer acquisition as well as customer retention. Exceptionally good customer experiences create a cadre of satisfied customers who influence other consumers in the active evaluation stage of their decision-making process. If the customer experience remains positive through the ongoing exposure period, when the time comes to consider a subsequent purchase, customers bypass consideration and evaluation of other products, opting to remain loyal to the product.
Conversely, when a customer’s experience is poor, more often than not he will not go quietly into the night. In addition to re-starting his journey with a new consideration set that does not include the product that displeased him, the customer is likely to influence other customers. Social media is full of customer experience horror stories that result in inestimable damage to brands during pre-purchase evaluation.
While non-linear purchase journeys magnify the impact of social media and online data, the increase of multi-channel commerce exacerbates the issue by leaves businesses no refuge from negative comments about the customer experience. While brick-and-mortar stores have expressed the most concern about showrooming, product manufacturers and marketers have as much to lose from customers researching products online, on the spot, before making a purchase decision.
The Age of the Customer is upon us, made possible by the combined forces of multi-channel commerce, connectivity everywhere and social media. While your customers may no longer follow a straight path from assessment to loyalty, taking a direct approach to getting the customer experience right has never been as important as it is today.
 The consumer decision journey, by David Court, Dave Etzinga, Susan Mulder and Ole Jorgen Vetvik. McKinsey Quarterly, June 2009
 Avanade research, cited in Reaching the Nonstop Customer by Stephanie Arnette http://www.dmnews.com/reaching-the-nonstop-customer/article/346081/