Does the customer’s journey lead to you?

Heather Rast/Tree Full of Owls

The journey a customer makes from consideration to buy – and on to bond, if the value proposition is strong enough – hasn’t been linear in a while. The decision journey is much more open-ended than itinerated, more hostel than concierge service. Self-selection – to your blog, e-newsletter, and loyalty program – is the new participation model for consumers in the prospect pool.

The starting point of the often-circuitous route prospects take could be anywhere and everywhere – a search results page, replies to a crowd sourced twee, or comments offered on a Facebook status update or a shared photo or link on Google Plus. Testimonials from constituents, product reviews left by previous customers or dialogue on a forum could also influence a prospective customer’s decision-making and which fork they take within the buying stages.

The term “customer touch point” has never been used to describe a more ubiquitous association between brand and customer than it does today. Forget deliberate, carefully proofread points of contact – your brand is being broadcast all day, every day. And even though many managed communications channels (direct response vehicles, corporate web site, and advertising, for example) remain viable elements within a comprehensive communications mix, much of what prospective customers will come to know about your brand won’t be a result your traditional marketing efforts. Rather, the perceptions and images will be formed from a collective experience, with roots both online and off, stemming from both brand-managed and socially aggregated information.

The implications? What your brand intentionally says (marketing) and does (service delivery) will impact the cash register in the same manner it always has, perhaps with less force. And it also means more subtle levers like sentiment spread by word of mouth, public response to crisis, and ethical corporate citizenship will exert more influence before the point of conversion than previously known. Social technology amplifies these and other demonstrations of a brand’s values in action.

It’s time to concede that there are some influential forces a brand can overtly control (like how a crisis or misstep is handled), and many more it can’t. A common thread is the core value of trust. When it comes to engendering trust, a recent report by Edelman cites that while a variety of factors comprising business competence has historically created customer confidence in a brand, building future trust will stem from more societal issues. Companies demonstrating an authentic concern for customer needs, a commitment to treat employees well, and willingness to place customers ahead of profits will move from, according to the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer Survey, “…a license to operate to a license to lead.”

Unfortunately, in many areas, the gap remains wide between the values companies state are important to them and how customers think those companies actually deliver against those values, with spans ranging from 88 percent (placing customers ahead of profits) to 28 percent (have a positive impact on local communities).  The divide is significant, and demonstrates the difference between operationalized brand positioning that’s defensible and believable, and positioning that truly isn’t supported.

How, then, can a brand possibly represent itself consistently and authentically in an ever-growing number of channels? When the unpredictable assortment of opinions, experiences, and perceptions in a targeted buy’s personal and social networks has great impact on whether a product/service will be chosen?

Therein lay the real opportunity. Companies that approach the issue with a disruptive attitude, a willingness to objectively evaluate all aspects of its communications tactics, and recruit fresh perspectives (call on cross-functional employees to get their take) will have an advantage. Good customer data is immensely useful, too, so scour your databases and poll customers. Build new feedback loops so you’re always aware of whether your company is fulfilling on its promises.

The marketing, advertising and communications materials you publish and distribute are only part of the material percolating through a prospect’s mental “Do I buy?” filter. Tumbling alongside are tidbits the person read on a blog, heard about third-hand from a friend or learned about in an industry publication.

Walk a mile in your customer’s shoes. Look around at the wealth of information readily available online and off that’s not managed by the brand but instead initiated and perpetuated by outside publics – customers, suppliers, etc. How might what you find influence your buying decision? Would the knowledge put you on the path to your company’s door, or that of a competitor? Why or why not? More importantly, what actions will you take now?

Heather Rast is principal of Insights & Ingenuity, a digital marketing company in the Cedar Rapids area. Learn more at