Friday, December 7, 2007

The Customer Lifecycle

How do you monitor your customer throughout the lifecycle? Each customer enters the buying process at a different stage. This is most apparent with technology products and is not necessarily transferable to a commodity.

However, the Internet is, in essence, a technology product from an adoption perspective. Understanding how the customer interacts with your site or your products and when will help you target the correct intervention point. Pinpointing your communications to lifecycle stages will avoid a shotgun effect and will solidify your relationship with your customer as an evolutionary process.

Identifying Your Most Valuable Customers

You can identify your top customers by analyzing historical sales for dollar volume and frequency of repeat purchases. The data must be carefully analyzed because repeat customers can be more valuable over time than one-time, large ticket item purchasers. This analysis must then be matched up with the demographics and other attributes and characteristics you've previously identified in your customer segmentation. Integrating all of these elements gives you a good picture of your key customers. You will also need to include customers you want to have in your cultivation plan.

The opportunity equals the combination of customer retention and the value of all future profit plus those customers you deem to be potentially valuable over the lifecycle—minus the investment required to keep and to acquire them. It also includes future profit made by referrals. Prospective customers who visit your website prior to purchase are much more likely to become buyers than to become non-visitors.

Investments in personalization, promotions, and communications depend on the ranked value of your customers.

It's equally important to establish the identity of the consumers that do not measure up. Spending time and money on this group drains the company of the ability to cultivate new and more attractive customers.

Internet 2010

Direct mail companies use a similar technique to determine their mailing investment to each customer segment. After dividing the customer base into ten equal groups, they then rank based on profit potential. These companies must ensure the cost of catalogs is worth the ultimate customer value.

After customer segments are defined, the data are incorporated into future forecasts to make product selection, pricing, inventory management, and promotion decisions.

Business-to-Business Relationships

Up to this point, we have used the terms "customer" and "consumer" interchangeably. Consumer package goods companies normally focus on the consumer as the end user and reserve "customer" for other businesses, resellers, and distributors. Manufacturers and retailers with business-to-business relationships know that these customer relationships can be among the most profitable.

A one-to-one system with a company must still focus on an individual. Each functional area will approach the relationship uniquely. Depending on whether you're dealing with a professional purchaser, a technical specifier, or an administrative assistant, the customer's needs will vary. Simplifying routine purchases by offering custom lists or access to prior purchase invoices is critical for those tasked with frequent purchasing responsibilities. Ordering expensive or technical products may require justification and additional information.

Environmental information should be easily accessible along with health and safety materials data. Customized web pages address individual company requirements and purchaser needs. Automated ordering and delivery systems can be linked to other systems for integrated purchasing, billing, and supply-chain management.

Many mid-sized companies worldwide will use or plan to use the Internet to purchase supplies and equipment in the near future. While personal calls by sales reps could be construed as true one-on-one marketing, busy business managers perceive time as money. They don't want a sales pitch: they want to order and receive services their way. Convenience, speed, and cost are the main drivers.

Usage Behavior

We've examined shopping behavior, lifestyle, demographics, and other factors that influence customer purchasing and loyalty. How products are used, at home or in business, may also have an impact on web-based shopping. For instance, if a web designer knows that a customer routinely purchases a spare product in addition to a regular order, he may bundle two products together or offer an online reminder. If segment data confirm that most customers purchase two products together, a promotion may be offered to customers still purchasing the single item.

Historical purchasing data will be useful to monitor usage behavior. The best way to thoroughly understand customers and how they use the products they purchase is to visit representatives of your top segments in their homes or offices. Following them for a day or two will give you invaluable insight that you cannot achieve in a sterile test environment.

The analysis of customer behavior over time must be measured to get an accurate picture of usage. This is best managed with a permanent program rather than a one-time research project.

Predicting the Success of the Customer Relationship

Relationships between customers and merchants are very much like other typical relationships between people. Understanding what makes a relationship successful with your employees, spouse, children, or co-workers helps you determine how to measure a good relationship with a customer.

Relationship studies conducted by the University of Denver indicate that marital failure is predictable to a surprising degree. This means that, for many couples, the seeds of divorce are present prior to marriage. The study was grounded in understanding how to prevent marital failure and determining how prediction can lead to better interventions designed to help couples reduce the risk of divorce.

Dr. Howard Markman, Department of Psychology at the University of Denver has identified the steps in a relationship and potential danger signs and patterns in his book, Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love (JosseyBass, 2001).

Once a relationship is established by two partners, problems can develop. Escalation occurs, which can be resolved, ignored or neglected. Continued neglect implies invalidation, and contempt usually follows. Negative interpretations, withdrawal and avoidance lead to indifference. These are danger signs and patterns of a relationship headed for failure.

The same patterns and principles can be applied to the customer relationship. By reducing risk factors and increasing protective elements, you can preserve a fragile relationship. How the customer "feels" at every point of contact with an online store influences the relationship. Points of contact can be shopping on the website, asking a question of the customer service department, returning a product, or tracking an order. At each of these touch points, a customer must feel important, appreciated and respected.

The large group of people called "customers" must now be narrowed down to specific individuals. When you think of these individuals less as "targets" and more as "partners," you begin to get the idea of how powerful a relationship can be. The customer is not someone we do something "to"—the customer is someone we do something "for." It's a symbiotic relationship in which we have to give something of value.

Shrinking the World

If e-commerce mirrored the actual composition of the world, it would be very diverse. Marianne Williamson, noted author and speaker on world issues, presents a new way to look at the people of the world:

"If we could at this time shrink the Earth's population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all the human ratios remaining the same, it would look like this:

  1. There would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 from the Western Hemisphere (North and South), and 8 Africans.
  2. Seventy would be nonwhite; 30 white.
  3. Fifty percent of the entire world's wealth would be in the hands of only six people. All six would be citizens of the United States.
  4. Seventy would be unable to read.
  5. Fifty would suffer from malnutrition.
  6. Eighty would live in substandard housing.
  7. Only one would have a college education.

As web shopping gains adoption throughout the world, human factors engineering becomes even more critical. The Internet used to be a domain of technology aficionados and game-playing teens. Truly understanding the customer and designing for the future demands that you stay abreast of the changes in the population at large as well as feel the pulse of the shopping environment.

Major changes are usually addressed at the strategic level of a business. Yet, as soon as a belief about the customer is ingrained in a corporation's culture, it tends to be perpetuated. That's why many major corporations still believe that Internet use in the U.S. is dominated by men.

Subtle changes are even more difficult to acknowledge or track. Continual customer contact, whether through individual or group research, is the primary guard against complacency. Monitoring secondary research and staying in touch with customer advocacy groups will give dimension to growing customer needs.

Often, one channel will spot change faster than another. Even if your company uses only one channel—a pure-play web merchant, for example—it's still critical to understand how the customer shops in a variety of modes, what they prefer in each, and how a best practice can be replicated in another domain. Each channel can learn from the other because they take different approaches toward helping the customer have the best possible shopping experience.

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