Rethinking The Customer Buying Experience

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I’m a great fan of Customer Experience Design.  Unfortunately, most of the work in customer experience design tends to be focused on web design, user interfaces and product design. There is some interesting Design Thinking work being done in business process/strategy.  I think as sales professionals we need to rethink the Customer Buying Experience.

Actually, it’s already being done, but, it’s being designed without us!  Social media and networking create means by which customers are already redesigning their buying experiences.  Axel Schultze wrote an outstanding article, Sales Process 2010, that outlined much of this.  Social media isn’t the only place we are seeing customers redesign their buying experiences.  There is some very interesting work being done by procurement thought leaders and in supply chain management.  They are reassessing how they buy, how they work with suppliers, and how they (perish the thought) collaborate with vendors.

Change is happening all around us.  It’s going to happen regardless of what position we take, the train has left the station, we need to find a way to jump on board.

The challenge, however, is we are all prisoners of our own experience.  It is difficult for us to think about how to change radically, but we tend to evolve incrementally.  If we changed our approach and our thinking, we might be able to drive some profound changes and contribute to what is already being done. 

Customer Experience Design offers an interesting way for sales professionals to redesign how we work with customers.  Imagine the insight that we might get if we applied these principles to the Customer Buying Experience?  It does produce some interesting opportunities. 

In some ways, things like this have been done before.  We have seen profound changes in relationships in working with customers on their key/strategic account programs.  In those instances, the conversation started with, “How would you like us to sell to you?”  Recently, we brought some functional executives in front of sales people (in this case CIO’s), we posed the same question, how would you like to be sold to?  The conversations all brought profound insights to the sales teams and changed the way these customers were approached.  They built closer relationships, built greater value to the customers, produced greater revenue to my clients, and reduced their cost of selling.

Start your Customer Buying Experience Design in a small way.  As outlined above, consider focusing on your key/strategic accounts.  Engage the key people in those customers in a different conversation—not about buying your products, but ask “How would you like us to sell to you?”  Focus on the process, the quality of interaction, the coverage model.  Examine how they want to buy and what their ideal buying experience might be.  Test some new ideas with them–let them help you design the process.  Once you get their insights, look at what you can change and how closely you can achieve the design parameters.

Alternatively, leverage your Customer Advisory Board  (surely you have a Customer Advisory Board).  We usually talk to them about our products, sometimes about our policies, sometimes about our strategies.  Reserve one meeting with them to talk about their Buying Experience.  Talk to them about their buying experience, leverage them to help redesign it.  Or get customers representing a key function together (for example CIO’s).

It’s in your customers’ interests to engage in these discussions.  Afterall, aren’t all of them looking for a better buying experience?

These are just starting points. Customer Experience Design and Design Thinking is much more comprehensive.  I think there are great applications to this for Sales.  We have to look at things differently, these approaches provide tools that enable us to do this. 

We’ve been spending a lot of time talking to people in this space.  We’re still new, but we’ve gone a few steps down the road.  If you need help or have questions, you know where to call.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Dave, thanks for a thought-provoking post. I hope that some the sales and CEM experts in this community will weigh in.

    A couple of quick reactions.

    I think “customer experience management” (CEM) or customer experience design is too often associated just with customer service. It’s true that service is a critical “moment of truth,” but our research in 2006 found that two-thirds of memorable experiences happen in marketing, selling, purchasing or usage.

    So hopefully your post will get people to thinking more about the “buying experience” because of course in B2B this is extremely important.

    A 2nd point is that sales suffers from a macho culture of “making it happen.” The best reps overcome buyer resistance, beat the competition and work through internal obstacles. All true, at least from my experience at large account sales in IBM.

    Yet I wonder if more companies focused on creating a better buying experience, there might be fewer obstacles to overcome. Just a thought.

  2. Hi Dave,

    I agree that customer experience design encompasses much more than user interfaces, website navigation, retail environment, and product R&D.

    Many companies are re-designing customer experience buying processes based on an analysis of customer touch points. This mapping exercise typically results in strategies for pre- and post-purchase customer experience design.

    For B2B sales processes, I appreciate the advice given by Bill Stinnett in his book, Think Like Your Customer, and by Neil Rackham in his book Spin Selling.

    I like your advice to focus on the process and quality of interaction. And to dedicate some time to hearing customers talk about what their ideal buying experience would be like. My recommendation is to organize customers’ feedback by the circumstances they’re describing (contextual segmentation).

    You may appreciate my posts on taking a broader perspective for customer experience design:
    Innovating the Customer Experience to Embrace Everything That Surrounds the Product
    Are Customer Programs Giving or Getting?
    Measure Customer Value the Customer’s Way
    Customer Experience Innovation Involves Everyone
    Rework Your View of Customers for Successful Innovation

    Regards,
    Lynn

    Lynn Hunsaker helps companies improve customer data ROI, customer-centricity and customer experience innovation. She is author of 3 handbooks, including Innovating Superior Customer Experience.

  3. I’ll explain the comment title in a moment. To Bob’s point about the macho make-it-happen culture of sales–Binggoooo!

    Why on earth would I be interested in the buyer’s experience when my email inbox is overwhelmed with content containing subject lines like these:

    “Six proven ways to get around the gatekeeper”
    “How to get your prospects to return your phone calls”
    “Techniques that will double your sales”

    Maybe it’s not on CustomerThink, but this is Kool-Aid for many salespeople. Why? Because there’s a huge appetite for it! And there’s no shortage of experts who are more than happy to mix the powder, water, and ice, and send it out in webinars, e-mails, and training.

    But I agree with your keen observation. The conditions on the playing field have changed. Unfortunately, today’s sales culture, strategies and tactics are largely playing the legacy game. There’s both challenge and opportunity in that.

    The challenges are clear: change perspective or perish. The opportunities: not every company can–or will. Those that do will stand out in a positive way.

    One issue Lynn addresses is what constitutes the buying process. Does it begin with an online search? Does it precede that? Does it begin when there’s a “conversation” between a vendor and a prospect? That stuff needs to be understood. Prospects might be gaining information power, but vendors still largely control (and should control) the resources–time, money, processes, technology–they use to sell.

    Last year, I attended a presentation that shared “In the business decision-making process, 92% of people go online for information.” That got me wondering: what is the path that prospects expect? What path do they actually take? What must occur to ensure the buying process continues? What breaks it?

    I partnered with a researcher to enable companies to find out. A study provided to Medicare for that purpose is described in a blog I wrote in 2009, Get Beyond “92%” Hype: What Happens Inside the Internet Black Box?

  4. Hi Dave,

    You raise some interesting points. We are working with a high tech client at the moment in both enterprise and consumer divisions. We found that the most interesting question to ask customers is ‘How would you like to buy?’ rather than ‘How would you like us to sell to you?’ because the latter often leads to customers saying things like ‘make it really easy for me to buy or renew over the web’ and that has implications for a really well designed and branded web experience. The ‘sell’ question can lead to answers like ‘less pushy account reps etc’

    In our work we are seeing an integration of channels and the blend of high tech and high touch with these working seamlessly to deliver a great brand experience. Check out First Direct, Zappos, Apple, Progressive and Ferrari for some terrific examples.

    Regards,

    Shaun Smith

  5. As usual, the quality of discussion is better than the original post. Thanks to each of you for your observations and comments. I think this is a critical discussion for sales professionals to have—and I’d love to find a forum for us to expand this conversation beyond a blog post.

    I’m always amazed by the “tricks and techniques” approach. They’ve never worked. I’ve found being direct, straighforward, and engaging the customer is a problem solving discussion gets to the point and results more effectively. Somehow, there is this increasingly “macho” driven attitude, that is unjustified and has no place in high performing organizations. Not only is it vain posturing, but it distances sales people from their customer and their own organizations.

    I’m also amazed that when sales people talk about improving sales, we hold the conversation with ourselves, and don’t engage the custtomer in the conversation. We’re inbred–and we know what inbreeding produces. The most interesting conversations I have had about selling have come from outside selling. People who haven’t been pre-conditioned to think in a certain way, or people who have a different point of view that can allow us to think differently.

    Thanks for the great comments, I look forward to a way to keep the discussion going! Regards, Dave

  6. Shaun, just saw your comment, you are absolutely right, the better question is How would you like to buy? Thanks for straightening it out. Regards, Dave

  7. Dave,

    The customer experience at B2B organziations takes on a different spin than in B2C. The imporant thing to remember is that there are multiple decision makers and influancers within the same account, and each will have a DIFFERENT definition of or expectation from the experience. that is what makes the experience challanging.

    Additionally, the large portion of the sales are done through RFPs and formal bids which includes inherent limitations as to how you can change the rules to your advantage. It is in light of these challnages that the customer experience becomes even more critical to avoid commoditization and delight ALL involved.

    Lior Arussy
    http://www.Strativity.com
    http://www.CEMCertification.com

  8. Lior, great comments, thank you. You are absolutely right, B2C and B2B are very different. I think more progress has been mad in B2C (though not necessarily retail). In designing the Customer Buying Experience in B2B, there are a number of different dimensions, including the variety of people/agendas involved in the buying process. That being said, I think if we looked at designing selling around the Customer Buying Experience, rather than try to incrementally improve the way we sell, we will drive real innovation in selling.

    We are already able to design selling processes that accomodate the scenarios you outline, it would seem to me that we can design customer buying experiences that do the same thing (remembering no one size fits all.)

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion. It’s really interesting!

  9. Hi, Dave,

    As you pointed out directly, you won’t be able to sell effectively unless you know how your customers buy. The better you understand how they buy, the better your chances of closing deals and drawing repeat purchases. The question is this: “Is your selling process synchronized with your customers’ buying process?”

    Lior alerts us there are critical differences between B2B and B2C customers in buying. B2C customers may buy something because they want it. B2B customers buy something only when they have to; and this behavior is further intensified during a recession. Can you afford to leave your sales, i.e. your customers’ purchases, to chance? As Shaun indicates the importance of integration of channels and touch-points, to minimize the gaps between your selling process and your customers’ buying process, a customer-centric B2B purchase experience model is required and recommended.

    As shown by the B2B Buying Process Model illustrates how the corporate clients BUY IT services from IBM, well before you start prospecting and qualifying leads, your B2B prospects may have already searched and qualified your company or solution through Google search, referrals or any form of social media 2.0. Your company may be short listed to or expelled from a customer’s ‘buying pipeline’ long before you are aware and able to influence them. This is insyn with Andrew’s ‘92% of buying decision makers go online for information’.

    The ‘touch-point mapping exercise’ suggested bu Lynn, and Bob’s idea on ‘removing barriers to buying’, remind me one important thing: Not all customers are equally important to your company. Treating all your customers equally means you are not optimizing your resource allocation among customers. The same rule applies to touch-points. Not all touch-points are equally important to your company and to your customers. Some touch-points are more important in driving customer satisfaction; some are more important in reflecting your brand values; and some are more important in driving repeat purchases. Some may not be important at all. Allocating resources equally among all touch-points or managing touch-points without clear objectives implies that you are far from optimizing customer satisfaction, brand differentiation and sales return. We ought to understand the importance of touch-points in driving your corporate goals and allocate resources differently.

    You probably sell your products or solutions to your customers everyday, and it is logical and relatively easy for you to formulate a structured selling process. However, what you need to do is to understand their buying process rather than your selling process. It is your duty and opportunity to uncover their end-to-end purchase experience process in order to properly manage or influence them.

    Dave, thanks for your inspiring article as it triggers so many good thoughts on this importance subject.

    Sampson Lee
    Follow Sampson on Twitter

  10. Sampson: thanks for such a comprehensive discussion. Additionally, your article was terrific! Thanks for expanding on this topic!

  11. Dave et al,
    Sounds like everyone is on the same track in terms of the drivers behind the changing dynamic. McKinsey recently published a study on these drivers in The Customer Decision Journey.

    http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/The_consumer_decision_journey_2373

    Curiously, Accenture conducted separate research that came to the same conclusions.

    http://www.accenture.com/Global/Services/By_Industry/Electronics_and_High_Tech/R_and_I/Social-CRM.htm

    The social web is one component of the overall technology driver. The second key driver is customer empowerment and information access. What these two factors do is blow the sales & marketing funnels out of the water. The marketing funnel emerged originally to track the customer’s buying funnel. Now, the customer enters the buying cycle at multiple points, with a greater set of knowledge up front and with a smaller set of choices. And, now instead of trimming choices from a big set, the customer typically now expands his consideration set after entering the cycle.

    I would challenge Lior that the BtoB and BtoC buying experiences are any different in terms of the dynamics I mentioned above. Sure, there are multiple stakeholders in a BtoB buying cycle. Always have been. But, therein lies the need for shift in mental model for the seller. Especially now, in a social economy, BtoB sellers need to engage with each stakeholder as a separate customer. Each stakeholder will have their own buying cycle. Yes, that creates an exponentially more complex ‘sales cycle’. But, its the new norm. Buck the trend at your own peril.

    Very interesting topic, Dave
    Thanks
    Barry

  12. Barry, thanks for your comments, they are great (The link to the Accenture article doesn’t work, could you repost or send it to me). I was particularly struck by your discussion about engageing each stakeholder in the B2B cycle. I had always thought that was just the way things were done—in all my experience, that’s what I’ve done and have coached others to do.

    However, in a couple of discussions, this week, with very experienced sales professionals, I was surprised they thought this notion was new and innovative. I guess that’s why it’s called a complex sales cycle.

    Thanks for your reminder and outstanding comments! Regards, Dave

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