Consider all the steps your customers go through before they make the decision to buy.
What you have is, potentially, a large number of steps and many interactions, including many that you have little control over.
The customer experience starts at the time they identify a need or recognise a problem they wish to solve. From this point on, every interaction they have about this need or problem will impact on their overall experience, whether the interaction is with your company or not.
So it is absolutely essential that you make sure that your customers don’t become absolutely frustrated trying to find you, make contact with you or obtain information about your products and services.
- Contact emails where they never reply or do so a month after your enquiry.
- Websites which are so complex, you can’t find what you want.
- Q&A lists which don’t answer your question.
- Automatic telephone answering systems which take you through 16 levels of options only to return you to the beginning.
- Help desk staff who cannot answer the most basic questions without putting you on hold while they transfer you to another department and your call terminates in the void.
- Department stores which have no staff in sight to answer questions.
Remember that this is the start of the buying process and yet we often have a meltdown before we even get past first base.
So it is worth talking to customers about this part of their buying process.
- What information were they seeking?
- Where did they look?
- Where and when did they obtain the information they needed?
- Did they receive any incorrect or misleading information?
- How much time and effort was involved in satisfying their questions?
- What could be improved to make information more accessible?
- Did they feel that company staff were well informed and were they helpful?
- What other information did they access and what positive or negative information did they receive?
In the age of the internet and social networking, you have little control over where information is available.
You can proactively use Web 2.0 marketing to publish content on the internet and use it to engage with internet users but you cannot control what is said by others. However, you do need to know what is being said and take proactive steps to correct any misinformation.
You also need to be sensitive to the fact that an internet savvy customer could undertake considerable research before they contact us. They may well be very conversant with the alternative products and understand as much, if not more, about the marketplace than your own sales staff.
What you have to be very careful not to give out information that is inaccurate, misleading or incomplete. The knowledgeable customer will spot this and will be reluctant to deal with you.
Furthermore, they may use the social media to inform others of the deficiencies in your product.
You also have little control over what past customers say about you. Past customers with a poor experience who are vocal can be highly damaging to your reputation.
Often, you don’t know about what they are saying and you don’t know to what extent we have lost sales because of their negative views.
However, you can leverage good customer experiences through case studies, testimonials and engaging in conversations through social networking media. Your major objective must be to understand what information is being sought and to make that available through a variety of sources which align with different information search processes.
Not everyone progresses towards a buying decision in the same way, so you must be sensitive to the different media people use and the different capabilities of our potential customers. But making it easy for them is critical.
It is worth taking some time to review the quality of the content you make available to prospective customers.
Here is an interesting rating system from the Society for Technical Communication which is designed to solicit information from the customer about the type, quantity and quality of information available:
- I am satisfied with the documentation, website, or other information product.
- I can find the information I want.
- I can find information at exactly the time I need it.
- I can find the information easily.
- The information is available in the order of importance.
- The information is complete.
- There is no extraneous information.
- The information is stated in as few words as possible.
- The information is reliable.
- The information is correct.
- The information is consistent.
- The source for the information is clear.
- Any additional information I need seems readily available.
- If I do not find information or a reference, I am certain no relevant information
- The format is correct.
- The information is free from errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
- The documentation, website, or other information product was delivered on schedule.
- The documentation was delivered within the budget.
The better you can explain what problems that you address, how you do that (product or service) and how well you solve the problem or meet the need, the more likely you are to provide a positive experience at this stage in the buying process.
Individuals look for solutions. While many times this quickly transforms into a search for a product or service, this only happens because of prior knowledge or because they have quickly found the information they need to narrow their choices.
For habitual purchases, the leap between need and product or service is somewhat seamless as prior experience has shown that a specific product or service will satisfy the need. Even with purchases where there is less experience or an old experience where new information is needed, the range of alternatives may be rapidly narrowed and the search time substantially reduced.
Even so, you need to acknowledge that the purpose of the information gathering phase is to decide on a specific product or service which is going to be purchased. It is always possible, however, that the final product or service purchase may be different due to availability or other influences at the time of purchase.
Few individuals are waiting to gather all the information before they refine their choices. Typically, they will have a very wide choice at the beginning of the exercise and then selectively narrow their choices using any number of predefined biases, preferences or constraints. Usually the first cut will exclude all products or services which do not meet the expressed need.
Secondly, where some products or services include the expressed need but others don’t, it is likely that most of the latter will be excluded.
Once the focus is on those products or services which have a reasonable chance of solving the expressed need, the individual will use a range of heuristic decision rules to narrow the choice further.
Remember that the customer is weighing up continued search for more information against the value of the solution, the degree of fit and the complexity of the problem to be solved.
Where the problem is relatively simple, the risk of making a poor choice low and monetary value low, a satisfiying decision may be made by choosing one of the alternatives they have already identified without further evaluation.
As the problem becomes more complex and the probability of a wrong choice and monetary value higher, greater care and a more diligent evaluation is undertaken.
So getting the message right and specifying what problems you solve in the language the user can understand, is critical. If you can assist the customer to more quickly narrow their choice by being selected as a good fit early in their search process, we may help exclude other products which may have solved the problem but failed to convey this to the customer.
Tom McKaskill is a successful global serial entrepreneur, educator and author who is a world acknowledged authority on exit strategies and the former Richard Pratt Professor of Entrepreneurship, Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. A series of free eBooks for entrepreneurs and angel and VC investors can be found at his site here.