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How to Research your Customers’ Buying Process

  • SumoMe

…and Develop Ways To Accelerate It

Why research the customer buying process?

Because marketing is all about the customer decision process. Everything else is a distraction.

Marketing is first and foremost about influencing buying behavior – or buying behaviour for our UK friends.

The customer decision process — or buying process — should be the central focus of marketing: Marketing is all about developing the right product that people will decide to use, influencing the decision in favor of your product, and, most of all, shortening the decision cycle. These are the keys to dramatic sales increases. Anything in marketing or marketing research that doesn’t ultimately influence the customer buying process diverts your resources from the real goals of marketing.

We have found, in over 35 years of consulting, that shortening the customer decision process is by far the single most powerful approach to creating enormous increases in sales, even to dominating markets.

Why? The product that shortens the decision cycle accumulates customers faster. That means that it captures market share faster, thereby outpacing competitors.

In order to shorten the customer decision cycle, four things are necessary:

  1. Map the decision path,
  2. find the bottlenecks,
  3. remove the bottlenecks, and
  4. simplify the rest of the decision process.

Any marketer who has not mapped out the decision paths that his/her customers take is laboring at a severe disadvantage. When you have the road map, you can spot the bottlenecks, and plan out more efficient routes.

If you haven’t run separate focus groups of your most enthusiastic customers, your defectors, rejectors, triers, prospects, etc., and haven’t then combined them to understand the persuasion that occurs between them, the good news is: your competitors probably haven’t either. The bad news is that they are probably also reading this article.

Let’s not mince words, folks. You are driving in the dark without headlights if you haven’t mapped exactly what triggered your customers’ decisions, why they almost didn’t buy, what they had to overcome in order to buy, what they reacted negatively toward but bought anyway, how they would convince others, etc. Likewise, you are flying blind if you don’t know what turned off your defectors and rejecters, or what attracted them to your competitor. You are flying by the seat of your pants if you don’t know what would convince the undecided, and what would lure away the people who can be attracted to defect from the competition. Every time we have conducted decision research, we have made major breakthroughs for our clients!

Why not just ask your customers?

Unfortunately, you can’t ask most of the above questions directly. Asked directly, most of the above vital questions put people in the position of defending and justifying a decision that they don’t necessarily even understand. Often, people have little insight into their own motivations, or they want to present their decision in the best light, or they don’t want to mention the “trivial” reasons they bought or use the product. So, don’t ask people “Why did you buy product X?” unless you are researching the rationalizations that they give for buying the product.

You have to get to the decisive reasons.

People have multiple reasons for buying: some are the necessary conditions without which they won’t buy, others are the real deciding factors. So, when you ask, “Why did you buy X?,” or “what are you looking for in a product of this type?” Often people answer, “quality, reliability and service.” That may be what they were looking for, but usually not why they made their choice. They are the necessary conditions, not the decisive attributes. They often really chose products based on a complex series of decisions that have to do with such things as: feeling better about themselves, making a better impression on others, removing a trivial annoyance, liking the feel or color of the product, the impression they get from the promotional materials, wanting to look more scientific, avant guard, or more intelligent.

There is an old saying that people buy on the basis of emotion, then explain their purchase on the basis of logic. I hate to agree with such a cynical and general statement, but it’s very often true. It’s even true with the more cerebral products such as physicians deciding on medications, or MIS managers deciding on computers. “How does this product make me look to my colleagues?” can be as important as “what are the real benefits of the product?”

Because of all this, the consultant has to know how to get at the steps of the decision process indirectly, using a variety of techniques, such as indirect questions, projective techniques, and other techniques that promote psychological safety and allow people to express either what they are unable or reluctant to express.

So, how do you research the decision process?

As the old joke goes, “very, very carefully.” As you can see, it isn’t easy to get to hidden motivations, get past rationalizations, and find out the decisive issues. It is possible, however.

The methodology that I have found to be most revealing is a unique kind of focus group design. The group interaction in focus groups stimulates people to remember and express beliefs, opinions, attitudes, preferences, expectations, intentions, images, hopes, wishes, dreams, fears and even vague concerns that they will only express in the most superficial manner in a one-on-one interview or a survey. These are the kinds of thoughts and emotions that you have to identify in order to understand the decision process in enough depth to see what will actually persuade people to use your product.

The most effective research design, within the focus group methodology, is what I call Decision Acceleration Laboratories™. We conduct a series of focus groups with your suspects, prospects, defectors, rejecters, customers and evangelists. (Depending on the product, some of these may be separate or mixed.) We walk them though their decision process (more about this below), and identify exactly what triggered their decisions, and where they are blocked, or going off track. We then work up a series of marketing recommendations to speed up the time it takes to decide on your products.

The moderator has to be a world-class expert in the decision process.

The decision process can be either so agonizingly slow, or so lightening fast, or so complex that it is almost impossible to see all the steps. Some of these steps are implicit, unconscious, or otherwise hidden. You have to know the steps that tend to be taken, then probe for the particular ways that the steps are taken with that particularproduct and population. For instance, all products are “tried.” But for some, this might take the form of a demo, sample, actual trial, “test drive,” video, tour, or other kind of experience, even a daydream or mental rehearsal of what it would be like to use the product. In addition, there are many subtleties to some trials that have to be appreciated, such as how a physician tries a new drug (usually on refractory patients).

A thorough understanding of the steps that people take in the product decision process is absolutely essential in order to walk customers through their decision process. That’s because there is no such thing as “the purchase decision.” It is really a series of more than 18 separate decisions and steps, some of which customers sail right through, others where they get bogged down and flounder. The specifics are different for every product. But when people try to describe how they decided on a product, they skip important steps. For instance, they will tend to describe how they chose between two products’ sets of benefits without describing how they got into the market for such a product in the first place, how they identified alternatives, how they gathered information and rejected some products from consideration. They might skip steps in describing their trial. An experienced decision researcher knows what to probe about how they decided on various criteria, or how they determined the importance of the criteria.

Complicating matters is the fact that many decisions are made by multiple decision makers, all having different agendas, goals, belief systems, standards and viewpoints.

All this complexity can be simplified

If this all sounds complicated, it is. But I’ve found that it is always possible to cut though this complexity and find the simple sequence of materials and events that will break through the most important decision bottlenecks and send the product through the roof.

So, you can see that decision research is a specialty, and I dare say the most difficult in all of marketing consulting. It involves not only an understanding of how to research the decision process, but how to apply the knowledge to construct persuasive and compelling ads, collateral materials, brochures, packaging, sales presentations, seminars, etc. I’ve been studying it for over forty years, conducting focus groups on it for 35 years. And I’m still learning about the process and inventing new marketing methods for accelerating decisions.

If you want to know more about conducting decision acceleration research, contact me. I’ll either do it myself, or put you in contact with an expert who I’ve trained.

Specific Tips For Researching The Decision Process

However, I can’t resist practicing what I preach. I believe that you and I should give away as much as we reasonably can, in order to put people that much further along the decision path, so that they can see the value of our products/services and use them that much sooner.

So, in the hope of accelerating your decision to undertake this important research, here are some specific tips for researching the decision process:

1. Use focus groups (for the reasons already described).

2. Separate suspects, qualified prospects, active shoppers, triers, rejecters, defectors, dissatisfied customers, satisfied customers, and evangelists from each other in the initial stages of research, when possible. Sometimes, however, you can get away with conducting as few as six groups (sometimes even only two groups) along the following model: (1) Users, (2) Prospects, (hi3) Users, (4) Prospects, (5 & 6) Mixed. You bounce off each group what the previous groups said, and in the last two groups you get them to try to convince each other. These last two groups (I call them Persuasion Groups) are the most difficult-to-conduct sessions that I know of. “It should be tried only by professionals. Do not try this at home.”

3. Have people describe in detail how they went through the stages of the decision process. Here is apartial list of important issues:

* What were they doing before they got involved in the decision, and what was their state of mind?

* What specific realization, event, or feeling got them into the market for the product? What got their attention and involvement? What made them receptive? Was it self generated, a product claim, or a word of mouth interaction?

* Exactly how did they find products, whittle down their choices, gather information and weigh the evidence? How and why did they reject yours or the competitors’ products? What specific arguments for or against various products “got them?”

* How did they try? What were the success criteria? How did they know the product was “good?

* How did they go from trial to implementation? How did they overcome the learning curve?

* Who did they have to convince? How did they convince them?

* What governs their use now? What would convince them to switch? How would they try to convince other people?

4. The next step is to draw a flow chart or make a list of the important steps in your customers’ decision process. I call this a Decision Map™. For every bottleneck, devise specific marketing tactics to overcome them.

Let me once again urge you to at least start along the path toward identifying your customers’ hidden decision steps, then finding and eliminating the blocks. I can’t imagine anything that can provide higher payback, faster.

I’ll be happy to talk with you about how you can reach your marketing goals. Click here for more info.


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