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Those of us who have been in the business world for some time have had it easy. It used to be a fairly safe bet that happy customers would, sooner or later, return to buy again. After all, we did a great job of winning those customers in the first place and by meeting—or occasionally exceeding—their expectations, their loyalty and repeat custom was almost assured.
And then the Internet came along, and ruined everything. Our customers were now exposed to a seemingly endless array of choice and were gifted the ability to search for and discover new ways to buy from almost anyone, anywhere in the world. In the passage of a few short years, our customers’ world view has been transformed from a paucity of choice to a seemingly endless stream of possibilities.
With this dramatic increase in choice and control, customers learned that loyalty is not always the smartest choice. I call this “digital disloyalty”, and it’s having a profound impact on many organizations. In almost every industry sector, customers are now more confident in their ability to self-discover the best choices and increasingly skeptical of the advice of previously trusted experts.
Here’s another way to think about this change. The first phase in almost every journey to purchase is now characterized by a period of ‘self-service research’. During this time, customers will happily conduct their own buying investigations while postponing making direct contact with prospective suppliers until they are satisfied this would be in their best interests. Modern life’s busy—no-one has time to be sold to—and it makes perfect sense to delay showing your hand to sellers until you are ready to buy.
The buying process now looks a bit like this:
Particularly in the world of B2B (business-to-business) transactions, numerous studies now show that customers are on average at least 60 percent through their journey to purchase before they engage prospective suppliers. In some sectors, especially amongst small businesses, the crucial moment of supplier engagement might take place later than 90 percent of the way through the buying process. And things are getting worse. In almost every sector, the supplier engagement phase is shifting backwards, ever closer to the final moment of purchase.
This leaves sellers with just a short window of sales opportunity, right at the end of the buying journey. By this point, customers are often better informed about the choices available to them than even your most experienced salespeople. Digital disloyalty really has changed everything.
So, faced with an ever-shortening period of supplier engagement and limited opportunities to influence the sale, what can organizations do to win and keep customers?
Firstly, and counter-intuitively for many, the primary focus of every business should be on the long-term, not just the short-term wins. The key to surviving the ruthless self-service research phase is to be in buyers’ heads before they even start the process. Think about it: if your company’s name or that of one of your salespeople comes into the buyer’s mind as they start their research, you’re in with a chance of being added to their shortlist. If they haven’t heard of you before, you’ll be fighting for attention in their online search results, alongside all the other short-term obsessed competitors.
The second solution lies in creating content that supports the customer throughout their self-service research period. The business boardroom maxim used to be “Information is Power”, but liberating this information into the public domain has become an essential skill for all organizations. Look at it this way: if your prospective buyers expect to be able to do as much research as possible without contacting you or other suppliers, the best thing that can happen is that they stumble upon and enjoy some of your helpful content in the process. This translates into an urgent priority for all businesses to openly and transparently publish supportive advice to inform the self-service research phase.
Digital disloyalty is one of the most powerful forces in the world today. When we understand its origins and why customers are opting to behave differently, we can leverage this understanding to create better, stronger organizations that can thrive, not just survive, in our digital age.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Allister Frost is an award-winning Chartered Marketer and Speaker who helps businesses adapt for our rapidly-changing, technology-driven world. Voted UK Digital Marketing Personality of the Year, he is an expert in improving commercial results by leveraging emerging digital technologies to inspire profitable customer actions.