I recently saw a documentary about the origins of the Sidney Opera House. As I’d actually been there and seen how complex the structure was (the image below shows the interior, which I was fortunate enough to tour), I found the documentary very interesting. Besides the inspiration being an orange (don’t ask), the other big surprise from the documentary was that, after the two year-long competition to pick a plan, it took sixteen years figure out the details and build the Opera House.
The reason for such a long timeline is easy to understand in retrospect. Construction was started before the architect was done finalizing the design. The client changed major design requirements after construction had already started. Because progress was not visible, the government (who was paying for the building) withheld payment so all work stopped. The designer quit but didn’t leave any of his plans behind (because he thought he’d be hired back) so the engineers just made up structural plans based on what they saw already in place. This led to all kinds of additional structural problems. You get the idea.
It’s the same when you push information or actions onto buyers in an illogical order. You don’t get them to move any faster through the stages of the purchasing cycle. You just force backtracking at inopportune times, incur additional costs when you have to create new content to address, and a create feeling that this is not an organization that really understands who it is communicating with.
You can choose different names for the stages, merge or add new ones as dictated by whether you have a high or low consideration product/service, etc. However, most customer centric buying cycles I’ve seen or that analysts speak about usually include these stages in this order:
A realistic, customer centric buying cycle must start with the “natural” state of the buyer, before the buyer knows there is anything less than satisfactory about her situation. You have to help the buyer have that epiphany about the issue related to your product or service. Only once she is aware of the issue will she be ready to hear about specifics, like your product or service. For that reason, pushing your brand at this stage is inappropriate. If your awareness-generating content happens to be a white paper with your brand on it, that’s fine so long as the content itself is not about your solution but the underlying problem your solution solves.
Similarly, you’re trying to engage the buyer at this stage so it’s not appropriate to require information in exchange for content (a.k.a., “gating” the content). The rare exception is when you ask for geographic or other data so that you can tailor the information (i.e., a lawncare company cleverly asks for your zip code to customize information based on local temperature and other growing condition data tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).
You also need to think about what your buyer’s concerns are, where she goes to stay up-to-date on her industry news and trends in her “normal” state, and what sorts of formats and channels she prefers for her information and ensure your tactics reflect that.
The buyer is learning the scope of her problem and exploring potential solutions in this stage. Think about how you can be proactive in answering potential buyer questions before they come up and ensure your content reflects all those issues.
Different types of buyers and different types of products require longer or shorter buying cycles, however, this stage typically requires a narrower set of content, distributed through fewer channels. That is because the buyer is actively seeking out information at this stage, rather than you having to seek out the buyer as in the previous stage.
However, because of the digital revolution, even business-to-business (B2B) buyers often are not ready to interact with a sales representative at this stage. Some studies shows that B2B customers go 65-90% of the way through the purchase process before they contact a vendor. Others actually need specific information not found through self-guided research and will need to speak to well-informed representative before they can go further.
At this point, the buyer has sufficient understanding to narrow down the relevant organizations/solutions to a very few that they feel are worth the extra time for their colleagues to join the selection process. Trials or pilot deployments often come into play late in to this stage as a way to ensure a complete understanding of what the results of implementation would entail.
This is also the stage of the buying cycle where influencers most frequently come into the mix. These are people who have to approve conceptually (ie, IT) or people who have to approve financially (ie, managers or Chief Financial Officer).
Typically, the final purchase has to be approved by someone else besides your target buyer (those influencers we talked about earlier). That means that the buyer will need help establishing the business cases for purchase before they can finalize the purchase.
Implementation, level of support, training, and time to productivity will also have to be spelled out for the buyer so she knows exactly what would be included in the purchase and what would have to be purchased separately. The buyer also wants a fast, painless process of signing contracts and paying for the purchase.
A team I did a workshop with a while back was super excited to drive more demand. I love excitement so I was thrilled and started asking questions about how this all worked. Turns out they were already great at getting contracts signed. They had a huge problem with customers not using their product after signing a contract. Given their product was software as a service (SaaS) and they only earned money when the customer actually used the product – not when the contract was signed – this was a huge problem.
This is the perfect illustration of why the purchasing cycle doesn’t end with a signed contact. Even if you have the type of product where you make the revenue when the contract is signed, if you don’t help with implementation, the contract will be out for rebidding right away – and your reputation will be tarnished. The client may not be great at the process of getting up and running but, ultimately, their failed implementation reflects on you.
The bottom line is implementing products, especially those that involve information technology, is complex and very few buyers implement well enough to achieve total return on investment (ROI). Regardless of who is ultimately responsibility this success or failure, your organization will be harmed if the client fails.
Even after the customer has successfully deployed your product or service and you have shown the wonderful ROI, there is more work to be done. One successful interaction with a buyer sets you up for another via up-sell or cross-sell, and another, and another. For that reason, most modern purchasing cycles are illustrated as circles rather than lines.
This repeating process multiples the return you get for that initial cost of acquiring the customer and generates a significant a customer lifetime value (often abbreviated as CLV or just LTV for life time value) to the organization. Happy, repeat customers are also more likely to advocate on your behalf, bringing additional leads to your door and increasing your brand reputation for potential investors.
However, while many organizations say they are aware of the higher cost of acquiring new customers versus retaining existing ones, the majority of people I speak with do not have a separate program addressing existing customer retention or up-sell/cross-sell. As someone who build and scaled a very successful customer marketing program from scratch, I can say with confidence that it is worth the effort – and a great source of incremental revenue.
One other thing to note is that organizations that are exceptionally customer-centric have realized that the buying cycle is not linear. Instead, they agree that — when supported properly — it is a self-replenishing cycle. For that reason, may leading researchers suggest presenting the customer-centric buying cycle as a circle.
So, build out a formal purchasing cycle that everyone in your organization can align their efforts to. Consider the process from the buyer’s perspective so you have the best chance to intercept the buyer and lead her along the path you lay out across the stages. Only after you understand it from her perspective can you work on organizing your organizational response or even your organization’s structure. That effort will ensure you don’t fall victim to the long, painful nightmare caused by “common sense” that befell the builders of the Sydney Opera House.
Comments welcome, especially if you have some examples of how your organization defines or executes customer centric purchasing cycle.