Although the consumer buying process might seem random, most customers actually follow a progression that remains consistent regardless of the product or service purchased. This process often unfolds subconsciously, without the customer even aware it’s happening. If increasing sales is your goal as a business owner (and it should be), you need to understand the five steps of the buying process.
The Customer Identifies a Problem
First, the customer realizes they have a need. It’s tax time, for instance, and a small business owner realizes they might owe a lot of money. They want to reduce their tax burden as much as possible before paying the bill. Who wouldn’t? But the business owner isn’t a tax expert and, in fact, barely understands the labyrinthian process of filing. They have a need, then, for an accountant to help lower their tax liability.
A customer’s need recognition can come from an internal or external source. Their stomach might growl, signalling the need to get some food. That’s internal. Or they might see an ad for the latest smartphone, the one with a billion megapixels and zero bezels, and decide they must have that phone. That’s external.
As a business owner, you must figure out what triggers your prospective customers, then take steps to activate those triggers. If you’re an accountant, you might reach the customer above by sending a postcard or email at tax time. Make it catchy, something like, "Are you giving too much of your hard-earned money to the government this year?"
The Customer Searches for Information
The customer has recognized they have a need. Next, they search for information on how to fill that need.
They do this several ways:
- Asking friends, relatives, coworkers, and acquaintances for advice;
- Reading news articles or other publications about their problem;
- Checking web review sites or consumer rating publications;
- Testing various products or services themselves (e.g., test driving a vehicle).
The business owner with tax questions might contact other entrepreneurs. They might search the web for articles about lowering tax liability in Canada.
How can you use a potential customer’s search for information to your advantage? Show up where they’re looking. Position yourself as the solution to their problem.
If your customers are the type to check news publications, issue regular press releases. If they conduct local searches, work on search engine optimization and get to the top of the results. If they tend to ask friends and family, maintain an active network in the community so your name comes up.
The Customer Evaluates and Compares Different Options
The customer’s search for information leads them to various brands or providers. The tax-challenged entrepreneur finds a few local accountants. The guy with the hollow, roaring stomach identifies several burger shacks in the vicinity.
Now the customer compares these options. Their goal, of course, is to make the best buying decision. Among the criteria they compare:
- Perceived quality
- Brand reputation
- Additional perks (e.g., free accessories or ancillary services)
The customer comparing accountants might probe various fee structures and services offered. The burger shopper might compare quality, amounts of food, and side dishes included.
To win customers over at this stage, you must be keenly aware of two things. One, the strengths of your own product or service. Two, everything you can possibly know about your competition. That way, you can position your business as the obvious choice and superior to others.
The Customer Makes a Buying Decision
The customer has evaluated their options. They have compared different brands or providers. They’ve weighed the pros and cons, and now it’s time to pick one.
This decision can involve many factors. But it ultimately boils down to three things:
- Highest benefit
- Lowest risk
- Best overall value
Put simply, the customer wants to get their money’s worth. They want the most benefits and fewest risks relative to the price.
How do you convince the customer that your product or service is the answer? Suppose you’re an accountant wooing the entrepreneur at tax time. You could do the following:
- Offer benefits: audit protection, lowest tax liability guarantee, ancillary services (e.g., auditing their utility or telecom bills);
- Minimize risks: if the customer isn’t satisfied, the service is free;
- Sell value, not just price. The best customers usually don’t select the cheapest option.
The Customer Makes Post-Purchase Decisions
It goes without saying that you want the customer to choose your product or service. But the process doesn’t end there for the customer. It shouldn’t for you, either, because the decisions your customer makes after their purchase affect you as well.
After buying your product or service, the customer decides if they’re satisfied with their purchase. The answer to this question determines several things:
- What they tell their friends and family;
- What they post online;
- Whether they buy from you again.
The customer who has a positive experience, tells everyone, raves about you on social media, and buys from you over and over is a boon to your business.
But the one who is dissatisfied, warns their friends to steer clear, and crushes you online can cause irreparable harm. You would’ve been better off not selling to this person to begin with.
It’s important not just to close the sale but to encourage positive post-purchase behaviour. How? By doing the following:
- Underpromising and overdelivering;
- Offering second-to-none post-sale support. For instance, helping with installation, making follow-up calls, providing friendly customer service.
- Issuing returns or refunds if the customer experience falls short of expectations. No matter how great your business, you’re going to encounter a dissatisfied customer. Don’t fight with them. Better to lose the revenue from one customer than from many potential customers (e.g., their friends, family, and social network).
The consumer buying process might seem unpredictable, but it isn’t random. Understand this process and master each stage of it, and you can start increasing sales today.