Know Your Customer Journey
Know Your Customer Journey #2 – Understanding How Customers Buy
An important step to building a predictable growth engine is to fully document every step that a customer goes through to make a purchase.
This is known as the Customer Journey.
The most successful companies, have a deep curiosity about the steps a customer takes to solve a problem or pain point. Clearly this process will vary considerably between a business and a consumer, between a high value order and a small transaction. It may vary considerably for each situation, however, mapping this workflow will dramatically improve your chances of creating repeatable sales that can scale quickly.
Change Your Mindset
All too often, business leaders fail to fully appreciate the way people buy. They can only think as a seller. There is a crucial difference.
A seller thinks, I’ve got a great product and need to tell everyone about it. A buyer thinks I have a problem to solve – how can I solve it. For buyers, marketing messages that don’t solve their problems are just noise – resulting in wasted time and costs for product and service vendors.
To really appreciate the process a customer goes through, sales organisations need to change their perspective. They need to think and act like a customer.
Further, be a customer. Experience the pain points described in our previous article, and then consider how you would address them.
Customer Journey Mapping
For consumers who make a relatively small purchase such as buying a pair of shoes, booking a holiday, or going to a restaurant for dinner this involves a series of conscious or unconscious steps, often using gut feel and emotion to make decisions.
Take, for example, the process of buying a holiday. You’re tired and know you need a break. Your spouse wants to practice Yoga. You have time booked off from work and the kids are off school. You know your budget and your personal preferences. After talking things through with the family, you narrow your selection down to beach holidays in Europe. You research several potential destinations by speaking to friends and reading online reviews. You can then decide where to purchase your trip, whether booking online or via a travel agent. As you need further advice, you speak to a travel agent and identify a Spanish resort and specific villa. It meets your budget, its available and the family love the photos. You feel confident enough to book. You just check the final details (flight and transfer times, passport or visa requirements, the travel insurance) and then you feel confident enough to book and spend your money. Even once you’ve paid, you make sure that the ticketing has the correct information so that the holiday meets up to your expectations. If all goes well, you’ll have the relaxing holiday you needed to refresh your batteries, the kids get their beach time, and your spouse enjoys their yoga time.
Think about the steps the family go through to make the purchase decision.
Now consider the steps a Business-to-Business purchase goes through to make a buy decision. It’s remarkably similar, just more rationale and usually with more checks and balances in place.
1. Recognising the Pain
In business purchase cycles, a critical first step is that the buying organisation not only recognizes the problem but has quantified the cost to the business. This cost might be financial, time based or based on risk. By quantifying the problem, the business will then be able to prioritise whether it is a problem worth solving.
For example, running out of stationery is a low value problem that can be fixed easily. The impact is likely to be relatively minor, there are plenty vendors available to solve the problem in a matter of hours. Hence office supplies businesses trade on relatively low margins in a highly competitive space.
Alternatively, I recently met a guy who ran the foreign exchange desk at a major bank. His software licensing costs ran into the millions each year. So, before he made a single trade, he had a significant overhead. His competitors had no such licensing costs and could provide the same service quicker and at a fraction of his costs. His customers were migrating away to the lower cost vendors at increasing speed. This was a business critical problem, worth several billions income. Hence, he managed to get sign off on a significant budget to resolve this problem.
Smart suppliers understand this critical first step in the buying process and attempt to make buyers aware that they fully understand the challenges faced by buyers. They engage analysts, publish research, speak at events, and demonstrate their deep understanding of the domain. Often, the best people to represent suppliers, are customers that have experienced the pain and engaged the supplier to resolve it. This is not about selling, but it is about education and awareness.
2. Researching Potential Solutions
Again, all too many suppliers believe they can simply shout about their product through blog posts, social media and website and the customer will jump onto a demo and purchase. Not so.
A B2B buyer, must go through a process of researching potential solutions. This will usually involve speaking to their peers, potentially at events or in buyer-only forums. They will look to trade bodies and engage independent analysts and third-party research to assess a range of options.
A comprehensive purchasing process will necessitate the buyer to fully assess every viable option, including doing nothing, delaying the project to focus on other priorities, investigating inhouse solutions or extending relationships with existing vendors. These are often preferable to buying a new product or service from a new vendor.
‘Do nothing’ can quite often be the answer that many businesses resort to. Maybe they are time or budget constrained, other priorities rise up the agenda and sometimes, the buyer’s research will uncover unexpected costs or risks that mean that the gain is not sufficient remedy for the pain.
‘More of the same’ is another all-too-common alternative to making a purchase. This is where a business has previously addressed the identified problem and simply adopts the same solution repeatedly. It can be a lazy option, but also it can be quicker, lower risk and cheaper than making a purchase of a new product or service.
Buyers will also consider a range of alternatives. These could include outsourcing or insourcing, engaging consultants, or contractors to manually solve a short-term problem. For software solutions, many companies will go through a ‘build or buy’ decision. For larger companies, the pain being experienced in one part of the business may already have been solved elsewhere in the company.
Suppliers of products and services need to really understand the full range of options available to buyers and address this in their marketing. When evaluating competitive advantage, suppliers should go way beyond simply looking at their closest competitors and consider why their solution delivers tangible benefits versus the status quo, against incumbent or legacy solutions and when compared to alternatives. For a software vendor for example, they must fully understand why their solution delivers a great ROI than outsourcing the process to a low-cost country to manually manage the process.
Another key point to note is where buyers get their information. They may well be visiting events and exhibitions, searching online and chatting on specialist online forums ie they may not heard of specific vendors or have visited a vendor website – so having a high visibility in the places where buyers inhabit is crucial to be able to influence potential buyers.
3. Narrowing the Field
In both our consumer and business examples, the next step in the buyer journey is when they reduce the range of options to a specific type of solution. Our consumer decided that they wanted a beach holiday in Spain and therefore discounted other options. In our B2B example, the buyer eliminates the status quo, cannot justify re-using inhouse solutions and rejects alternatives and so has decided to make a purchase.
At this point, buyers will typically start to conduct more in-depth research into a smaller number of vendors with similar solutions. They will take recommendations from peers, investigate market leaders in specific fields, they will start to spend time on vendor websites.
Dependent on the nature of the requirement, larger projects and many public sector processes will require buyers to create a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) or Request for Information (RFI). These structured questionnaires designed to ensure that potential bidders meet the specifications necessary to fulfil the buying organisations requirements. Many sellers, resent or fear these processes as they can be time consuming, appear to distract from selling their product or service or simply a cold-hearted way of saying no to potential suppliers.
Often at this stage in the buyer journey, the customer will be looking at a range of criteria to assess whether the specific vendor and their solution is worthy of being shortlisted. Again, these factors will be based on a range of functional and emotional connections. They will often assess the product capabilities, supplier reputation, ability to deliver, and other items. It is true that some of the criteria will be based on gut feel – a supplier may be discounted simply because their website is not easy to navigate or does not show the information the buyer is seeking. The buyer may have irrational prejudices against suppliers from certain countries or not want to trade with a supplier who also trades with a competitor.
Hence for sellers, having a professional and well optimized website is critical. Research indicates that 80% of a B2B purchasers’ decision is made before speaking to a supplier.
4. Shortlisting Potential Suppliers
Following a broad sweep of several vendors, most buyers will shortlist between 3 and 5 for further investigation. Many procurement policies mandate or encourage 3 bidders are asked to provide proposals. In truth how many suppliers are shortlisted will depend on the buyer’s appetite for conducting a thorough process and the risk (or perceived risk of making a wrong decision). Unlike consumer purchases, a poor selection decision, can negatively affect a buyer’s career prospects.
Larger companies and many public sector organisations adhere to strict rules by issuing Request for Proposal (RFP) or Tenders. As with PQQs and RFIs, this process aims to provide rigor and structure for the buyers when considering potential suppliers. It should make it easier to compare apples with apples ie fairly compare suppliers and their solutions. However, they are often constructed in a way that eliminates the supplier’s opportunity to differentiate their offering or demonstrate how they can go the extra mile to solve the customer pain. Many suppliers will avoid engaging in these processes fearing that that are simply a lot of work and perceive them as simply a way of finding the lowest bidder.
Suppliers need to understand and respond to this by providing relevant and timely information that makes it easy for the buyer to choose them, versus a direct competitor. Websites need to clearly articulate the value proposition, competitive advantage, relevant customer successes, how to experience the product or service, pricing, and delivery information and to reassure the potential customer that selecting their solution is lower risk than competitors.
Again, thinking from a buyer’s point of view – not only does that solution need to address the pain better than competitors and alternatives, but it also needs to deliver a compelling business benefit and be lower risk. Messaging on websites and in marketing collaterals needs to reflect this.
5. Engaging with Suppliers
Often, at this point in the buyer’s journey, they have made the decision to buy – but need to decide which vendor, which product or service and specifications to meet their needs. Thinking back to our consumer customer journey, the holiday type and location have been chosen, next is the specific airline and hotel to select. In B2B, the equivalent step is when the buyer has identified 3 potential suppliers of the product they wish to purchase.
A supplier can stand out from their competitors, simply by being more responsive, providing clear answers to buyer questions, thinking ahead for the buyer, and making the buy decision easy and low risk.
B2B purchases can be remote and one-off transactions but many do require a longer-term relationship. At this point of the customer journey, supplier representatives earn their crust by earning the trust of buyers. By being overly aggressive by offering discounts or special terms, the buyer may react negatively or question why the vendor is so desperate to sell their product. Increasingly, especially in consulting, technology, and services, becoming a trusted advisor to the customer enables suppliers to stand out.
Most of us trust a travel agent more if they explain the downsides of a specific hotel as well as the upsides. Knowing that hotel A is further from the beach than hotel B gives a sense of reassurance to the consumer whose kids want a beach holiday. A B2B seller will earn more trust if they are open about where competitor products are superior to theirs – as well as where their product meets customer needs better.
6. Making a Buy Decision
Once a buyer has selected a supplier and the product or service that best meets their needs, they need to decide on how to purchase. Often, this is where they will request a proposal from their preferred supplier or suppliers. Dependent on the nature of the transaction, this proposal could be simply a price quotation sent by email or text or a much more comprehensive document detailing deliverables, service levels, pricing, payment terms and a host of other information.
Buyers, at this stage in the process, will often need to expose the proposals to multiple people within their organization. They need to get internal validation from a range of people, often from different parts of the organization and with conflicting motivations.
A mentioned previously, getting sign off on a new project with a new vendor can take time and add complexity. Depending on the nature of the transaction, the buyer might need to convince their line manager, their colleagues, legal teams, operations, suppliers, and a host of other participants. It is not uncommon for this step to scupper the entire customer journey or knock the process back several steps.
The buyer may be questioned again about their rationale for opting to make a new purchase as opposed to selecting existing solution. They will need to justify every step of their process – especially for larger order values or more strategically important decisions.
Sellers must recognize that this is the hardest part of the customer journey. It often requires calm reassurance, prompt responses to questions and demonstration that they are the right supplier to go with. Sometimes they may be exposed to new parts of the organization and must start the sales process over again – just to satisfy someone who can positively (or negatively) influence the final decision.
This is where successful sellers are pre-armed with all the weapons in their armoury. The customer needs a face-to-face meeting with legal teams, no problem. Another part of the organization already has a similar product or service – the supplier needs to jump on that. The price or payment terms don’t work for the buyer’s line manager, the supplier may need counter offers and ways of disarming this objection to buy. Again, expert salespeople will negate much of these seemingly last-minute challenges by addressing them much earlier in the customer journey. To reduce sales being lost at such a late stage, effective sellers will build trust and open dialogue, they will make sure legal are onboard way in advance of contracts being exchanged. They will map out who is involved in the purchase decision and build early momentum by engaging with everyone involved and they will have demonstrated such compelling value that the buying company sees negotiating terms as a risky endeavour. This can only be achieved if the seller fully understands and addresses every step of the buyer journey.
It is certainly true that many purchases do not follow a perfectly linear process such as described here. There is far more back and forth, the nicely defined stages are rarely as clear cut as we would like. In truth, there are many smaller steps within each phase and decisions to buy are not always easily understood by the buying organisation – let alone the suppliers.
Never-the-less, to become a powerhouse sales organization, whether low value consumer transactions or large scale B2B deals, it is crucial to understand, empathise and document the customer journey.
In our next article, we will outline how this customer journey is the foundation of building a predictable growth engine. We will describe how sellers can positively influence buyers and create repeatable processes to maximise revenues.
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