The Age of Education

Do you remember when salespeople used to put their home phone number on their business card? Rarely did a customer phone them at home, but it was a sign that the salesperson was always available. Instead of phoning salespeople for information, customers now search the Internet. Customers in all industries now expect to connect at some level 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. So businesses must always be accessible.

As consumers, we are spoiled. An auto dealership website that allows customers to book service appointments online at 3:00 AM would be viewed as progressive. Companies in a business-to-business industry may not be expected to take a phone call in the middle of the night, but it is entirely possible for an entrepreneur to be searching at 3:00 AM for information on software systems to manage production on the shop floor. By the time the software system vendors are open for business, that entrepreneur may have finalized a short list of companies to call.

In addition to search engines, customers often have a list of go-to websites for ideas or information on products and services. Some are fairly well known, such as houzz.com for home renovations. Others are obscure but have loyal followers in a niche community. A great example is DCrainmaker.com for products used in the sport of triathlon. This is an information-heavy site operated by an engineer and triathlon enthusiast. Both these sites influence consumer buying decisions. The Internet has provided transparency to buyers.

As customers, we don’t even have to speak to a salesperson to find information such as which companies provide a certain service, the price, and differences related to features. More customers are well informed before entering the sales process.

Even in industries where companies do not post price information online, such as commercial construction, competitors have to be more transparent than in the past. It’s entirely possible that a potential customer will review construction company websites to learn what type of work those companies have done and who they have worked for and to get a feel for their competency before contacting a short list for quotes or to be included on the bid list. It’s not that a construction company will necessarily be selected based on its website, but an online information search is now ingrained in the way people make purchasing decisions.

Let’s also examine how social media may have a role in our commercial construction example. A more progressive construction company may post photos of higher-profile projects on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Few potential customers for commercial buildings will see these feeds. But some will. This type of information provides a window into the company culture. It adds a human touch to the company’s brand, essentially its reputation in the marketplace. Visit instagram.com/stratadevelopment for an example.

So what are the implications on strategy? Consumers are emboldened by having greater access to information. They are able to make better-informed decisions and to increase their demands on suppliers. The following are a few considerations for adjusting strategy to suit changing consumer behaviour patterns and an evolving competitive landscape.

Know how your customers buy

Listen to your customers and understand what they want and how they buy. Let’s examine a retail example. A common term used these days is “omnichannel” marketing. A clothing retailer, for example, may sell through a traditional bricks-and-mortar channel and also through an online channel. But the customer just flips back and forth, perhaps viewing products on the website and then walking into the retail store to try the clothing on and make the purchase. In this case, the online store had a crucial role in the purchase decision, despite the fact that the product was purchased through the traditional retail store.

Be the expert

In a world where too much information is available online, customers are overwhelmed and gravitate to brands they trust. Customers want to connect with a servant-leader. They respect subject matter experts that provide resource information to the market at no charge. Education builds trust, which leads to a purchase, repeat purchases, and loyalty. For example, companies that sell water purification equipment for remote locations typically offer product information sheets. But customers do not want detailed product information early in the process. A background document on the various forms of purification methods available to customers would be more valuable and would position the company that authored the document as an industry expert.

Interact with the customer

Have a dialogue. In some situations, that means a genuine personal conversation. At other times, it means the customer reads your content or interacts with your website and brand. They may never actually speak to a person, but interacting with the website or with the brand in a retail store can be similar to forming a relationship. For example, Allen Edmonds is a respected shoe manufacturer in the US. The company has a loyal following, partly because it offers a variety of widths and models that ensure a good fit. Customers can get extensive product information, including help with sizing, from the website. Customers can also provide reviews directly on the site. Although few customers ever speak to an Allen Edmonds employee, customer comments provide the feeling of a dialogue.

Predict the customer’s next move

If you understand the purchase process, and a customer behaves like they’re in a certain stage of the process, you can predict what their next steps might be. Consider the example of a home painting company. A customer who subscribes to an e-newsletter featuring design ideas has a high likelihood of taking on a painting project within the next few years. If they download a document titled “10 Considerations When Hiring a Painting Contractor” you can bet they are further into the buying cycle. That knowledge might encourage you to work more closely with these active leads. If your document suggests that one of the steps is to visually confirm that the contractor’s paint sample suits the decor of the home, your document could mention that a paint sample can be ordered online from your website and mailed to the customer’s home.
That final step takes them one step closer to a purchase.

We can expect to see companies continue to build their marketing and sales strategies around the needs of their customers. Company strategies are centring on delivering relevant products and services, providing useful information before engaging in the sales process, and nurturing customer relationships rather than just closing the sale. All of this is good news for customers.