Every marketer from Boston to Bejing seems to be focused on something called the "customer journey." A Google search on this two-word phrase returns over 627,000 results. It's one of those "Eureka!" moments - organizations realize buyers start researching a firm's products and services long before they reach the point of purchase. These firms are now scrambling to find and engage with those customers while they are still on the move and before they arrive at a sales destination decision. But I gotta tell you, this is not news to those of us in the online community world.
In fact, the customer journey has long been an integral part of the online community experience. Many - dare I say most? - online communities make "the journey" a key part of their mission, aiding the customer before, during and after the point of purchase or other key decision. Communities are dedicated to helping customers and other stakeholders understand, explore, question and learn about products and services.
This "Ah-Ha!" moment for the customer journey highlights two different but parallel approaches - let's call them tracks - for understanding this process: one is mapping the customer experience; the other is building customer engagement. In our ever-more-connected world, these two tracks are now merging to become one.
Making the Connection: Online communities and the Customer Journey
In our new world of customer-focused and customer-driven interactions, many firms struggle to engage and communicate with prospective and existing customers at appropriate times and places along the customer's journey.
For example, when a sales person reaches out to a prospective customer, often the sales person has no way of knowing where this prospect is in their purchase cycle. Another example: anyone who has worked in customer service knows that customers typically wait to reach out to a company for assistance only after they have reached a high degree of frustration with their purchase.
Now imagine if a firm were able to build a relationship with a prospect during their research phase, or engage with a customer before their purchase problem reaches the breaking point? This is what online communities offer: a way to break the cycle of mis-timed outreach and catch-up customer care. Community offers a powerful way to move the buyer's experience from episodic chaos to a more consistent, confidence-inspiring and customer satisfaction-building trip.
As the two tracks of customer experience mapping and engagement come together, let's identify the four phases of the customer's journey: Awareness, Evaluation, Purchase and Retention.
This is the initial phase, when the prospective customer hasn't fully defined what she is looking for. She may not have a clear understanding of problem she is trying to solve, so identifying a possible solution is difficult. A community is especially well suited to supporting customers in this awareness phase. A vibrant and engaged community signals there is strong customer support for prospective buyers. User-contributed content - questions asked and answered - plus sponsor-contributed content speeds up the problem and solutions identification process, which might include specific product and service recommendations. All this occurs while the prospective customer is building relationships with community members.
During the evaluation phase the prospective buyer winnows the options and examines product and service offerings in detail. It is comparison shopping. One advantage a community can offer is creating a single point of reference and collaboration for a buyer's team. Online communities bring together a wide range of content and conversations within a single environment. It becomes the place for a single buyer or a team to share information and compare options. The community supports information-gathering from many sources but places all this content in a collaborative framework which supports comparisons and discussions about needs, preferences and decision factors.
Consider this situation: our buyer posts a question directly into an online forum and receives a range of responses from other community members. Some of those members will have been through the evaluation phase and made a decision. Some will be in the same state of uncertainty as our buyer. Still others will have long-term experience with the outcomes of a purchase decision. Many voices, many shared opinions. Where is the voice of the firm?
Some advanced-thinking organizations have created specific discussion areas to talk with prospective buyers - dedicated forums staffed with knowledgeable sales people who can respond open way to a buyer's questions. These skilled sales people must have incentives to participate and training in the techniques of consultative selling to interact successfully with customers in a community environment.
At last! The buyer makes a decision and becomes a first-time customer. The psychology is similar to other kinds of journeys; by turns exhilarating, exhausting and complicated. And once the traveler gets to the destination, the party can begin.
But this is also a delicate time for the company, because - as with a first-time traveler - the new buyer's expectations are exceedingly high. Every new customer's interaction with the firm is memorable. With a complex services purchase, for example, once the papers are signed and the buyer's team dives into the project, the selling firm had better be ready. The new customers will begin making connections inside the company and with other customers outside. They become voracious learners. They are eager to prove this was the perfect decision - no pressure on the seller there!
An online community strategy can really pay off here. There are so many ways community interactions can accelerate projects and delight the new customer's team. If there is a formal account management team in place, their presence in the community can help speed the pace of information sharing, support and relationship-building.
Another way to look at this is to consider the alternative: what if new customers were unable (no place to go) or unwilling (who are the people who sold us this?) to interact with your firm? They will take their questions and concerns to other online venues, such as: a community operated by enthusiasts or experts with no connection to your firm; an outside standards organization; a competing firm.
If your firm is not part of the conversation, it can't answer questions; verify the accuracy of information shared or follow-up with customers. A community is your company's opportunity to respond with accurate and authentic information.
Customer retention is the outcome of the three prior phases. It's the desired end state for customer relationships - Gartner Group states 80% of your company's future revenue will come from just 20% of your existing customers. What firm doesn't want to create customers for life as part of their overall strategy?
But how many companies make building and sustaining that "customer for life" a goal? In a world of fickle buyers, loyalty is hard to come by. Switching costs are at record lows. The choice to remain a customer is critical for both the customer and the company. How does the customer feel? How did the interactions and support go? Were they listened to? Did they feel whole in the end? An online community attuned to these concerns is very powerful instrument for keeping customers.
Online communities don't always replace traditional support models, especially with complex purchases. But well-executed communities can help the customer when they experience "The Middle Of the Night Problem," when there is no one to call. And feeling heard and experiencing ultimate responsiveness goes a really long way with customer retention and how they feel about your firm.