Marketing’s New Key Competence: Driving the Consumer’s Decision Journey…

[reading time: 8 minutes]

Ux Intensive By WhatNot on Flickr

Ux Intensive By WhatNot on Flickr

Over the past years a lot has been written on the importance of understanding and aligning with the Consumer Decision Journey and more specifically how it has changed with the rise of the Internet of Things.

I like to refer to this combination of phenomena as the ‘ConsumerNet of Things’ for it stretches beyond the Internet into (real life) social networks and e.g. plain old brick & mortar stores as well. It’s the ‘web’ of resources (information, knowledge, connections, relationships, platforms, devices etc etc) available to Consumers (in a specific context) when searching for (and using) products and services to help them get their jobs done.

I don’t have to repeat that a Consumer/Customer’s capability to make (informed) decisions around the stuff they need has significantly improved over the past decade. And you should expect Customers to become even more savvy. It’s mind-boggling though how this has hardly resulted in a (noticeable) increase of company’s matching capability.

Of course there’s Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Advertising. And of course experts are trying to optimize conversion rates of the touch-points they are responsible for, e.g. the contact center or the online subscription form. Others are involved in dealing with affiliate partners or online aggregators. Most used strategy by all? Discounts and incentives! Few really talk to the Call Center employee, but maybe for when targets are set or a sales-boost is required. I think it’s safe to say many companies take their Consumer Decision Journey for granted.

I believe it is of vital importance companies start driving the Consumer Decision Journey. Classic campaign management is suffering diminishing returns for lack of relevancy. Content marketing is not by a stretch meeting the outcomes Customers are trying to achieve when going into orientation and purchase mode.  It’s still mainly a Goods Dominant Logic-fueled world out there. On top, people are overloaded with other things to do, as well as with information they (need to) consume. Information (e.g. interest-based ads) that Google is allowing them to opt-out from a lot more easy than before. Even to an extent that they make it easy to filter commercial messages from social and the real important stuff in your inbox. On first sight this new ‘feature’ will further reduce your ability to reach Customers via e-mail.

Yet we should not think that Consumers are in control now. Besides information overload, many products are not easy to find, nor easy to understand. And then there’s the fact that Customers do not know what they need. Make no mistake: they know what they want to achieve, but they do not ‘actively’ know what their criteria are for being successful (i.e. how they can best achieve what they want and how they judge the journey of getting there), nor can they easily translate those needs and wants into search engine search-queries. But they do recognize it when something or someone is really helpful in getting them their job done!

In short: Consumers can use a lot more help than is available today. And from your point of view: there may not be a lot of opportunity in (aggressively) selling your stuff, there’s plenty of white-space in doing a better job at helping them understand what they need, help them find the right options and buy.

What does it take to make Driving the Consumer’s Decision Journey your key Competence?
I believe that getting this right will provide you with competitive advantage in your industry or category. That is, if you make it a core competence to drive the Consumer Decision Journey and stay ahead of competition by doing so. But what does it mean to build a key-competence in Driving the Consumer Decision Journey?

I think there are five capabilities that you need to operate – in close harmony – to master Driving the Consumer Decision Journey. Here they are:

Capability I: Mapping the Consumer (and Customer) Jobs & Outcomes..
..from the moment – and the context – in which the need becomes apparent, to when they finished it, including all the touch-points they encountered (not just your own). Needs emerge in a certain context, and most cannot be immediately satisfied because the resources (yes, you should include all resources Customers use in your map) to get it done, are just not available. So you need to start with the very beginning, for most potential gains are to be found there, in the context and how they can satisfy the need immediately or not. The insights you gain, and the solution you design, could potentially disrupt your industry.

This is not a one-off, although Customer Jobs don’t really change that much over time. Yet in my experience the way they perform/experience the job, and how they think of the job changes with each attempt. You need to stay on top whether new (micro-)jobs emerge, what their relative importance is, and how people are trying to deal with them. To get this right you need to be able to continuously observe and have dialogue with your prospects and Customers.

And don’t forget to capture the Customer way of measuring success. You’ll want to transfer them into metrics to track success of your efforts!

Capability II: Identify key partners from the Customer’s point of view and their contribution to the Customer’s process.
Customers/Consumers use many resources/touch-points to get their job done. And it is likely that many Customers use the same key resources, specifically on the journey to purchase. The organizations attached to these resources are your Customer’s key partners. Customer’s might not recognize them as such but it is important that you understand them. You not only need to understand the role they are taking or being granted in the Consumer Decision Journey, you should also understand it’s importance  to your Customer and the key-differentiating attribute.  And you should ask yourself whether you could do a better job (in the eyes of your Customer that is..). Again: this is not a one-off. New parties enter the market every day, as do new concepts and business models. Make it a task to stay on top of this at all times.

Capability III: Quantify and validate the decision journey and the contribution of each touch-point (including those of partners and outsiders) to Customer acquisition, lifetime development & satisfaction with the process.
The first two capabilities are based on qualitative research. The third one is hard-core analytical. It’s relatively easy to plot a journey, it’s more difficult to prove exactly how consumers take their paths, online & offline, and in what quantities. It’s even more difficult to attribute touch-points to Customer and company outcomes. Available data will only bring you this far. To fill in the blanks you will need to tap into many external data sources and you likely need to survey your Customers/Prospects on a regular bases and preferably follow their behavior for a longer period. And like the above, this is not a project, it’s a continuous and iterative process.

Capability IV: Select and Manage Key Partners
With the identification of your Customer’s key partners in their (Decision) Journey the need emerges to manage relationships with them. That is, with those stakeholders that really contribute to the Consumer’s Decision Journey and that can help you optimize (Customer’s and your) return of the touch-points with your spend on them. Unfortunately there’s a lot of chaff on the wheat, from small time crooks to parties that take entire industries ‘hostage’. Some legitimate, some not so much. If you want to drive the Customer’s Journey it is imperative that you understand the ways of the Internet and the parties that think it’s theirs to take advantage of. And please don’t only look at the results on the surface. For if it looks to good to be true, it probably isn’t (sustainably).

Capability V. Design & provide company (branded) touch-points that enable Customers to perform key-jobs and achieve key-outcomes in each phase of the Customers path to purchase
If and when you’ve got the first four bases covered you can safely and iteratively start to design and implement new touch-points into your Customer’s journey. And regardless of the insights you’ve gained, your ideas will not survive first contact with your Customers. That’s why one of the most important characteristics of this capability is agility. Your budgeting process might not approve, but I’m confident you’ll fins ways around that.

And don’t forget to measure the Customer’s perception of her success in meeting her desired outcomes. It may be tempting to see success in measuring increased sales and revenue alone. But if you’re doing it in a way Customers ultimately are not happy with you’re leaving valuable whitespace for the competition.

Bring it all together
It is likely that you have elements of all of the above capabilities operating hidden behind silo walls already. To get the maximum out of the obvious required collaboration it is not good enough to use collaborative technology alone. I recommend you get a team of people with the required skill-sets and embark upon your own journey by starting a Consumer Decision Journey Lab. This requires a cross-functional team that includes people from all internal stakeholders and who are dedicated to the topic. This team should also include key-partners and probably even (emergent) customers. Minimum requirement is a cool physical as well as digital home for your lab. Places that allow you to have dialogue with anyone interested and willing to contribute. Places where you can ideate, design, prototype and test your solutions. You get my drift.

That’s it. What do you think? Is driving the Customers Decision Journey a new Key Competence for marketing? Did I get the capabilities right? What have you learned about the Consumer Decision Journey that should not go unmentioned here? Please let me know in the comments.

18 thoughts on “Marketing’s New Key Competence: Driving the Consumer’s Decision Journey…

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  4. Great article! A lot of marketers still believe that customers operate per the sales funnel. The shift in understanding needs to happen and quickly! This article talks about how and why the sales funnel doesn’t make sense anymore.


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  13. Hi Wim,

    Great job on this post! A definite must read for marketers everywhere. Companies should really spend more time on studying the consumers decision journey in order to come up with a foolproof plan that will work specifically for their organization.


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  15. Hi Wim

    I look forward to your next blog post. Keep them coming thick and fast.

    The narrow discussion around the customer decision journey and matching pathway to purchase raises broader, and I believe more important questions about the quality of thinking and the state of morality in marketing.

    If you take a step back you will see that the ethos of marketing has changed over the past 50 or so years. It used to be the driver of a three-step process of 1. understanding what customers want, 2. organising to give it to them profitably and 3. telling them all about it. Today, this has been changed so that marketing is now the driver of a much more intrumental three-step process of 1. create more stuff that we already make or that competitors make, 2. tell customers about it over and over again, and 3. manage away the customer queries, complaints and returns as cheaply as possible. This is a fundamentally flawed approach to marketing. It has resulted in a race to the marketing tragedy of the commons as promises have gone undelivered, requests for help have gone unanswered and a manipulative, Machiavellian approach to marketing has become the norm. There is no wonder that Bain & Co reported a huge ‘Service Delivery Gap’ where, although 80% of executives thought their companies delivered a superior experience for customers, only 8% of those customers agreed with them.

    The grandees of marketing, people like George Day, Philip Kotler and Ted Levitt taught companies how marketing must create value for customers before it can create value for shareholders five decades ago. But these lessons seem to have been forgotten in the rush towards a form of real-time business that is neither realistic nor particularly businesslike. My problem isn’t with real-time marketing per se – I have designed and built real-time marketing systems for pre-paid mobile telcos in the past – but with the low-quality of thinking and the low moral standards that seem to be endemic in marketers today. Is it OK to force yourself into a destructive loop of customer loss through poor quality service followed by a huge push to recruit new customers at better rates than long-standing customers, that many retail bank marketers have been reduced to? I don’t think so. It displays a singular lack of marketing intellect. Is it OK to make promises to customers and to simply walk-away from providing customers with any support once they find out they were sold a dummy, because you already have their money, that many utility marketers have stooped to? I don’t think so either. It suggest marketers’ moral compasses are no longer pointing true north.

    Many of the problems I see in business today can be traced back, in part, to poor quality thinking about the telos of marketing and an almost complete lack of marketing morality. Day, Kotler & Levitt showed us how to make marketing work. Their teaching has been reinforvced by a newer generation of marketing masters like Tom Asacker, Seth Godin and Alan Mitchell. And there are enough marketers out there following their principles to show that they are still as relevant today as they were when they were written half a century ago. So what is wrong with the other marketers; the ones who slavishly copy their peers without thinking about the marketing consequences and the ones who market promises they know they can’t keep without thinking about marketing morality? What is it that drives them to do all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons?

    Now that is a topic that I would like to see you write about.

    Graham Hill


  16. Hi Graham,

    That’s two nails now. :) I love your comment!

    And I’ll get back to your points in a separate post later this or early next week, for this topic has been bugging me for quite sometime now.. ;)



  17. Hi Wim

    An outstanding post that hit the metaphorical customer nail directly on the head.

    I agree with you 110% that developing a deep understanding of the customer decision journey should be the marketer’s No 1 job today. But doing this is not as straightforward as it may seem to the untrained eye, for a number of reasons; some obvious and some not so obvious.

    The first reason why this is so difficult for marketers is that they usually have too much of the wrong data. Many companies routinely collect massive amounts of data. But most of the data they collect is transactional in nature and relates to customers, contracts and contacts. The assumption is that by analysing the data marketers can identify similar-looking customers who are more likely to purchase in the future. It is the equivalent of driving by looking in the rear-view mirror. It doesn’t say anything about the customer’s underlying needs, the context in which they buy, or the other people who influenced them during their pathway to purchase. Without access to enriched data of this kind, too much analytics is wasted on pushing propensity models to achieve the next 0.01% sales uplift. Adding enriched data can have a huge impact on models. When one mobile telco added customer calling circle (social) data to its transactional retention models their predictiveness more than doubled.

    The second reason is that simply adding more and better analytics is not always the right answer. Models are by definition simplifications of the real world. Most predictive models are gross simplifications. But many analytically-minded companies hide behind their predictive models rather than going out and actually talking to customers. Heaven forbid! This can easily result in an instrumental, manipulative style of marketing that targets company messages AT customers because the models said so, rather than one that talks TO customers in their own language because customers told you so. Toyota teaches its staff the principle of ‘Genchi Genbutsu’, which loosely translates as ‘go and see for yourself’. Having run CRM for Toyota Financial Services in the past I can safely say that continuously talking to field staff, dealers and customers about their decision journeys resulted in as many as fifty changes to some marketing campaigns in their first year, that tripled the effectiveness of key flagship campaigns. An improvement that could NOT have been achieved by simply adding more or better analytics.

    The third reason is that life doesn’t stop at the point of sale. But you wouldn’t think that if you look at almost any aspect of marketing. On the contrary, the whole telos of today’s marketing is simply to create a warm lead. It’s all about the point of sale, after which the customer is left to their own devices or hanging on the end of a call-centre line in India talking to an agent who barely speaks proper English and isn’t empowered to help them anyway. We have all been there, haven’t we? This short-term approach to marketing causes marketers to focus on the latest propositions, positioning and promotions. And you can’t just cut them out and hope for the best. The recently departed CEO at JC Penney tried that and, well, he was forced to depart rather swiftly. The problem is that marketers focus on them at the expense of smarter marketing that talks to customers in their own language, delivers what it promises and optimises customer value over the longer-term. The result is a marketing tragedy of the commons where marketers have been reduced to shouting “buy my stuff” at customers to be heard over the noise of all the other marketers doing exactly the same.

    The final reason is a little different. Most of your post and my response so far implies being highly responsive to customers and their needs. This is certainly a huge stride forward compared to today’s overwhelmingly self-oriented marketers peddling their potions through promotions. But many of the greatest companies around, think P&G, Toyota, Apple and their likes, are not so much customer-driven but choose to drive customers instead. This is a lot harder to achieve than just being customer-oriented. It requires that marketers REALLY understand what customers want and that they use these insights to innovate all aspects of the product, service, delivery capabilities and even their underlying business model. Their aim is nothing less than to reinvent the co-creation of value in the business ecosystem. More value for customers enables companies to earn more value for shareholders too. A win:win situation. Done well driving customers brings with it winner-take-all rewards, but it also carries unacceptable risks for timid companies.

    In a nutshell, I agree with your emphasis on the customer pathway to purchase 100%. But it is hard for marketers to pull off in an environment obsessed with more dumb data, more instrumental marketing and more sales at almost any cost!. And it is even harder for them to take the next logical step and to become a customer-driving company.

    Graham Hill


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