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Over one hundred years ago, in 1910, psychologist and polymath John Dewey developed a five-stage process to model the average customer's journey from pre- to post-purchase.
It's still stunningly applicable today:
By breaking the process down into stages, the framework allows retailers to model and anticipate their customer's needs and make the necessary provisions.
Let's explore the stages in chronological order:
- Problem Recognition
- Information Search
- Evaluation and Selection
- Store choice and purchase
- Post-purchase processes
1. "I have a problem."
The buying process begins when the buyer recognizes a need or problem; a gap between her actual state and her desired state.
Your job as a retailer should be to help people articulate the problem that they have, and then demonstrate that you're able to solve that problem for them.
Understand consumer's problems by doing deep market research.
There's a great story in Charles Duhigg's Power Of Habit about how Febreze sold poorly as a odor remover, but brilliantly as a post-cleanup reward.
This requires a deep understanding of the customer's actual and desired states.
Market your products in the appropriate contextual conditions.
A great example of this was the Sony "Bottled Walkman" campaign, where waterproof mp3 players were reportedly sold at swimming pools.
It was ultimately a really clever ad campaign, but it effectively communicated to potential customers that Sony had a solution to a problem they had.
2. "What are the solutions to my problem?"
After identifying the need, consumers will start to source for a solution.
There are two main paths consumers take when searching for information: Internal and External.
Internal path: Memories + Experiences
Suppose you're craving pasta. You might start thinking about all the pasta dishes you've had in recent times. You'll also recall any pasta recommendations your foodie friends may have given you before. Memorable brands and products have an advantage here, thanks to the availability heuristic.
External path: Search + Social
If a quick internal review doesn't yield significant results, consumers might begin looking for information from external sources. These include:
- Web searches (brand websites)
- Customer reviews (product sites, forums, etc.)
- Word-of-mouth recommendations
To influence these:
Be memorable: Create a lasting impression with your marketing campaigns.
Marketing isn't just about mindless advertising and promotion, it's about framing your product in a way that solves your customer's problems. David Ogilvy was a master at this.
Read next: 90+ examples of sticky marketing
BE ACCESSIBLE: An engaging social media presence is non-negotiable in today's business climate.
Studies from CMB, RivalIQ and others have revealed that social media engagement plays a significant role in consumer decisions. IAB found that 90 per cent of consumers would recommend a brand to others after interacting with them on social media.
You don't have to be everywhere, just be active wherever your customers would expect to find you.
3. "Which are the best solutions to my problem?"
Remember that most consumers are not evaluating just one product, but several at a time. The evaluation process usually answers several questions:
- Price: Is it within my budget? Which one's more value-for-money? Do I get any incentives to go with it?
- Brand name: Is it a well-known brand? Have I heard about it before? Which one is more popular?
- Product attributes: Does it look good? Does it have more functions? Will it last? What will my peers think of it?
- Country of Origin: Where is this made? Can its workmanship and quality be trusted?
This is where your brand and products go head-to-head with your competitors.
Differentiate yourself: What's your Unique Selling Proposition?
Find out what you can offer that differentiates your product from its competitors.
To help you figure this out, we've assembled 30 tips from 37 experts on how to build your personal brand.
These tips are equally valuable in figuring out how to establish your products, too.
4. "Where can I get it?"
Once consumers have decided on the product to buy, they'll want to figure out where it's most convenient for them to buy it.
Consumers will usually make the decision to either buy online, or from an offline retail store.
Popular because it's convenient and allows people to buy what isn't available locally. It also allows consumers to look at different ecommerce sites simultaneously, as well as filter items according to categories, price, etc.
Being able to touch and try on products is a huge advantage for many consumers. Consumers usually prefer to try on certain types of apparel, especially those with complex measurements like suits or lingerie.
Provide all critical product information.
One of the biggest fears of online shoppers is that the product will not be what we expected, or that it won't suit us.
Ministry of Supply fights this with an awesome fitting guide. It compares their sizes with those of other popular brands (e.g. H&M, Tommy Hilfiger) to tell you which size you should buy:
For eyewear, Warby Parker has a virtual try-on function, allowing you to superimpose the glasses on a photo to show how it'd look on you:
Offline? Provide store information:
Consumers should be able to quickly and easily obtain information like store addresses, travel directions, opening hours, and contact numbers.
No excuses! Missing information = missing sales.
5. "So I bought it. Did I like it?"
As an ecommerce owner, it's your responsibility to ensure that your customers got what they asked for, and to check if they are satisfied with their purchase.
Here are some of the most popular reasons why customers return the products they bought:
- The customer ordered the incorrect product or size
- The customer decided the product was not needed or wanted
- No reason for return given
- The product did not match the description on the website or in the catalog
- The product did not fit the customer’s expectations
- The company shipped the incorrect product or size
Reasons 1 and 4 can be improved by making the product descriptions and sizing information clearer for consumers. Reason 5 can be mitigated by providing accurate visual information about the products, such as product images and descriptions.
Make Contact: Check up on your customers after they have received their product.
How do they feel about their purchase?
There are many different customer satisfaction tools you can choose from.
If customers are dissatisfied, it's worth going the extra mile to make their day. Great service is so rare, we all love to rave about it.
Ask for referrals:
If the product has exceeded their expectations, you can encourage them to recommend your brand to their peers as well.
Here are 47 examples of effective referral programs that bring businesses more customers.
Ultimately, the customer's journey is a familiar one. We just need to learn to see through our customers' eyes.
It's funny. We're all customers ourselves. We all know what it's like to compare multiple options when shopping, and yet we tend to forget that when we're the ones selling the goods.
Here are some questions worth asking yourself:
- What are YOUR favorite brands and products, and why?
- What is the last product you bought because somebody told you to? Why did you buy it?
- What is the last product you recommended to someone else? Why did you do that?
- How do YOU gather information when figuring out what to buy?
- How do you decide whether or not an information source is trustworthy?
- What are the red flags that make you want to leave a store, be it online or offline?
- What's the best post-purchase experience you ever had as a consumer?
Pay careful, conscious attention to your own internal processes, and discuss them with your colleagues. Over time you'll find yourself developing an uncanny understanding of what makes customers tick.