We talk about clicks, likes, shares, and eyeballs. We’re told to crush it, kill it, and any other war metaphor trotted out by the “guru” of the hour. But why would we use the language of battle to talk about the relationships we cultivate with our customers? Why is the conversation around winning a unilateral, self-indulgent one?
What exactly is it that we’re killing and crushing? Them? Us? Time — the only resource we can’t retrieve?
We use words like optimize, innovate, and return on investment until they become devoid of meaning. Until we can barely remember the shape and provenance they once occupied in our vernacular. Are we really optimizing their experience? Are we really delivering a return their investment?
Ah, I see. The language we use refers to our companies rather than our customers. Our performance instead of theirs. How fast we forget the people behind those body parts clicking, tapping, scrolling, hitting subscribe, adding to cart, padding our bank accounts, and profit and loss statements.
The people who put food on your table are simply a means to an end.
Imagine a different way of doing business. What if we considered a scenario where we focused on making our customers experiences effective and efficient? Ensuring our stories didn’t add to the noise that subsumes their waking hours, but instead entertained and educated them. Made their days a little easier, the sheen on their faces infinitely brighter.
Served them in the ways they want to be served and spoken to like a human, not lumped into a number on a P&L or income report.
Imagine if we focused on our customers’ profit rather than our own. Perhaps there exists a world where we not only care about our customers but the communities in which they live. Our customers are more than a metric. They’re people. Their success is our success, and those relationships are symbiotic.
We don’t “optimize” our families or view friendships as “revenue opportunities.” For the people who matter most, we use words like nurture, connect, relate, fairness, equity, compassion, honesty, and empathy. Why can’t we practice that same language and actions toward our customers? Aren’t they also relationships that matter?
All of this to say language is more powerful than we think. Language is a window into our character, it’s an expression of what we value and believe. Through the words we use and how we use them, people learn who we are. But no matter who we are, if we want our language to have impact, one rule applies: Consistency breeds legitimacy. Legitimacy breeds trust. Trust drives influence. And influence creates impact.
If we consistently talk about our wins, our performance, our profit, it’s our customers who get left behind.
What I’m proposing — a seismic change in how we do business — is not fluffy. Just like when I talked about values-based brands for years and growth performance bros laughed at me. Then COVID hit and now they’re penning articles about being human. So, no fluffy kittens here, friends. Rather, I’m talking about a systematic shift in how we think, act, and speak to our customers.
How we center them in every conversation we have and in every action we take.
Over the years, I’ve taught business owners, executives, marketers, and clients — all of whom are consumers themselves — how to understand their customers. The irony of which does not escape me. It’s not until I make it personal — I talk about how they search and discover products, buy them, trust the brands that sell them, do they get it.
I once pitched a major cosmetic brand whose sales were floundering. While they were a hot commodity a decade ago, they’re now dated, they’re “the lipsticks and fragrances my mom used to wear.” So, I said, do you think one ad is going to change that perception? Do you think by telling them you’re relevant makes it so? Do you think a twenty-five-year-old woman buying MAC cares that Cindy Crawford was once the face of your brand?
You don’t see a random ad and click to buy. You don’t “take a brand’s word for it” if you don’t know whether that word bears any weight or meaning. You research, investigate, and question before you verify. If that’s how humans buy, what separates you from your customers? How are they any different?
It takes time, I said, for someone to believe you, and that relies on you consistently showing up with the language and actions that shape that perception.
Imagine if that language started with: How do our customers profit? How do they win? How do we “optimize” their “performance”? Guarantee a “return on their investment”? Have you even considered how they search, discover, evaluate, buy, repeat-buy, and evangelize products?
We’re selfish people. Our public face speaks of our customer love but our private one fixates on our appearance. On the wealth we accumulate and the costs we cut.
We place our wants over those of our customers, often unconsciously, even if our business is built on helping the customer.
Think of the marketing executive who wants to copy another brand’s much-hyped campaign or jump on the latest platform du jour because they want to seem relevant and cool, but did they ask themselves if their customers are on those platforms, if those hype campaigns really made an impact for their customers rather than the trades? And what kinds of experiences do their customers expect on those platforms, from those campaigns?
Think of the freelancer who trots out their income reports, fans about in their clique groups and masterminds where the unwashed masses need not apply, and only engages with their customers at the nascent stages of their business when they need them for platform and revenue growth. Notice how once the dollars slide in their wallets their customers are no longer the highest priority because they believe, at their peril, they’ve already paid their dues and earned their customers’ trust.
Failing to realize relationships have to be continuously nurtured and maintained for them to last the long haul.
Imagine if I were a product-based brand and I never responded to my customers’ questions or comments on social media — I would be eviscerated for below-the-floor consumer experience. Yet, we don’t hold service providers to that same standard.
No matter, we live in a world obsessed with the short-term, the get rich now ideology. We’ll deal with all that other stuff later.
I’m telling you to deal with that stuff now. Be decent in your business. Be a CIA operative when it comes to your customers. Know how they think, feel, buy, and believe.
Why Customer Journeys Shouldn’t Make You Fall Asleep
I’ve written extensively about customer journeys, which are yawn-inducing, and that’s sad, sad for you, because putting yourself in your customers’ proverbial shoes ensures the viability of your business and health of your brand.
Consumers want to know you’re:
- Showing up consistently for your customers and providing value.
- Fulfilling your product (or service) promise.
- Being decent to them, the people who work with and for you, and to people in the communities.
- Intending to leave the world better than when you found it.
And that’s even before they consider purchasing your product or service. Mapping our your customers’ path to purchase, loyalty, and evangelism ensures you’re making them the hero of the story.
Let’s keep it simple: A customer (or buyer) journey is a map of all the steps a prospective customer takes to buy your product or service. It’s the:
- Actions they take to get to each step.
- What they’re thinking, doing, and feeling at each step.
- The goals they want to achieve at the end of each step.
Every business should know what a customer is thinking, feeling, and doing at each stage of their purchase journey and between points of purchase.
Some fancy people call this process empathy mapping — I call it paying attention. Pay attention to the questions they ask, the words they use, and the emotions they convey. Read reviews and comments. Lurk in forums and on social media. Study how they talk about the products they buy, how and when they use them. Listen to their complaints about not only the product, but their purchase experience. Talk to them on the regular.
If you want your customers’ attention, you have to be willing to sacrifice yours. If you want their business for the long haul, you have to think like them to serve them.
Let me give you an example of a brand that didn’t center their customers.
The Brand That Majored In Missing The Point
For a few years, I was the lead strategist on a famous, fast-casual dining brand. All of their media campaigns showcased white, upper-middle-class families treating the kids to brunch after the Saturday soccer game. When we analyzed thousands of pieces of CRM, survey, social media, and point-of-purchase data, the face of the customer wasn’t that simple and that white.
We found there were four distinct segments that visited the restaurant and the driving force behind their behaviors were frequency (i.e., how often they went) and income. The higher the frequency of visits, the lower the income.
The most frequent customers tended to be African American, Hispanic, and Asian and didn’t make the big bucks but found the restaurant affordable. It was also a place where they could gather. College kids came a little less frequently and it was a late-night munchie kind of affair.
TL;DR: We devoted a lot of money attracting a group of people who rarely dined at the restaurant. We centered our thinking, desires, and wants above those who were actually buying. And the brand suffered plummeting YOY revenue as a result.
How To Not Be The Brand That’s “All About Eve”
Be intentional with the stories you tell, not arbitrary. Are you solving problems? Are you providing solutions? Does your business embody its values? Are you impacting the communities around you beyond digging your paws through their pockets? Breathing your purpose in everything you do and knowing your customer ensures you’re not the Narcissus of business.
Regardless of who our customers are, every customer goes through a trigger moment (they need/want something for a reason), which has them:
- Searching for options,
- Evaluating those options,
- Choosing from one of those options,
- Experiencing the aftermath of that option, i.e., the post-purchase and between-points-of-purchase experience.
A customer’s experience buying a product or service is more of a complex, looping journey because we don’t tend to buy in a straight line.
We’ll veer off, research, change our minds, ask around, read reviews, ask the brand a question on social media, make a purchase, cancel it, or return it, end up loving the brand because the process was seamless or hating them because they treat their employees like garbage. Parting with our hard-earned cash is never simple or linear.
Our objective in journey maps is to define each step and prepare marketing and messaging, content and experiences, which demonstrate we “get” them, and we have solutions.
Below, I’ve created a sample journey so you can recreate this for your customers. Some journeys will be more intense than others depending the product or service, pricing, risks associated with purchase, etc.
Let’s Get This Journey Party Started
Let’s say you want to buy a new car. Follow along with this 20-minute video tutorial as I bring this journey example to life (yes, I made a video).
I. Trigger Event:
Action: “I need a car.” First, they’re triggered: A trigger is an emotional or rational circumstance or event that forces a person to want or need something.
Think/Feel/Do: It’s important to know what’s going on in our customer’s head so we can proactively plan to address it in our marketing and messaging.
- Think: “I need to buy a new car because my 1987 Chevy is dying a slow, painful death and I have kids, and a Chevy doesn’t support that life. I also want a car that’s a hybrid so I can save on gas.”
- Feel: “I’m stressed because a car is a big purchase. I don’t want to break my budget.”
- Do: “I’m going to talk to my partner and review our finances to see what we can afford.”
Goal: “Determine what kind of car is feasible given our needs and budget.” The higher the price, the more assurances they’ll need.
WACMWD (What a CarMax Marketer Would Do): Our job is to identify a customer’s challenges and pain-points and design our messaging and marketing to address them. Our content should:
- Communicate our cars are family friendly.
- Offer low down payments and easy payment plans.
- Offer trade-ins for cash applied to their next purchase.
- Offer leasing options.
- Remove the stress from buying by showing them various makes and models in their budget.
- Ensure communication is gender neutral. We don’t make assumptions of who would buy.
Since the customer isn’t proactively searching just yet (and we can’t target them), we want to create always-on messaging and marketing. This would be in the form of evergreen content on our website, social media, newsletters, and paid ads.
II. Search & Discovery Phase:
Action: “I’ve finalized your budget, now I need to find the right car.”
How people search for what they need and the tools they use vary based on demographic, psychographic, and behavioral factors. From mobile apps and social media to customer reviews, friends and family — our customers rely on a variety of tools, people, and technology to help them make informed decisions.
From this stage onward, we want to understand our customers’ “touch points” or “channels” they use because we want to connect with customers on the platforms and the places they reside on- and off-line.
For example, a person might:
- Use Google search to find the right manufacturer, make, and model based on your needs, lifestyle, and budget.
- Check out local dealerships and compare pricing.
- Ask a friend for a recommendation over dinner.
- Ask peers on social media or in private groups.
- Download comparison pricing and review apps such as Edmunds, CarFax, CarMax, AutoTrader, etc., which will guide them in finding their dream car at the right dealership for the right price.
See what I mean? But let’s keep it simple.
- Think: “I don’t want to waste time searching for the right car.”
- Feel: “I don’t trust car dealers. I don’t want to get ripped off.
- Do: “I’m going to ask a couple of friends who got new cars in the past couple of years and download comparison apps since they don’t have a lot of skin in the game. My favorite is CarMax.”
Goal: “Narrow down the best options from which my partner and I can choose.”
WACMWD (What a CarMax Marketer Would Do): While we can’t sneak into someone’s house and interrupt their chat, we can target them once they take an action online:
- Communicate objectivity: Our apps aren’t funded or supported by any manufacturer or dealership. We conduct independent assessments and reviews to ensure you have all the information you need to make an informed purchase.
- Communicate ease & speed: They can shop by brand, type, price, or lifestyle. We’ll also surface the most popular cars. Once they view a car, we’ll share specs, pricing, payment & financing options, as well as options to hold the car or have it delivered to the customer for a test-drive.
- Showcase social proof: People trust unbiased reviews. Promote your awards, accreditations, customer and editorial reviews so prospective customers have comfort.
Once they use our app or website, we can:
- Target & re-target them using online/mobile/geo-tagged ads (e.g., social media, pay-per-click, display ads, search engine marketing ads) with various iterations of the above messaging. We’re telling them a story, but in phases, over a period of advertisements and time.
- Email them once they sign up for our app: Assuage their concerns in all of our initial emails about what we offer and how they benefit.
- If they engage with us at this stage, we can field their questions via chat, phone, email, or social media.
III. Evaluation Phase:
Action: “I’ve nailed it down to 2–3 options, now it’s time to determine which car is the best option for our family.”
Remember when we talked about touch points. At this stage, they’ll use more of them because their hard-earned dollars on the line. They’re at the evidence gathering stage and we want to provide the proof they need to make the right choice. They might ask friends, family, and colleagues for opinions.
Or they might check out Reddit forums, private Facebook groups, and Twitter to get community insight and opinion. They might consult YouTube influencers who focus on car reviews. They might even visit local dealerships that sell the car they’re looking for and take them out for a test-drive.
- Think: “I want to know everything about these cars because I want to feel confident that I’m making the right choice.”
- Feel: “There’s a lot of information out there and sometimes I feel overwhelmed by it and all the opinions.”
- Do: “I’m part of a parenting Reddit group — I’ll get their opinion. I’ll talk to a few of my friends and see what they think. And I’ll go downtown when I have enough information to check out the cars in person. See how they drive.”
Goal: “I want enough information to make an informed decision.”
WACMWD (What a CarMax Marketer Would Do): We keep doing more of what we were doing in the search phase, but now we want to focus on the clinching decisions related to price, ease of purchase, mileage, condition, and relevant to their lifestyle. Our goal is to:
- Give them the information they need to make a decision.
- Make them feel confident and comfortable through unbiased reviews & information related to their choices.
- Reiterate our CarMax Certification and Love Your Car Guarantee.
- Remind them of our trade-in option.
- Show the entire purchase experience is easy. From 24-hour test drives to 30-day returns, we guarantee they’ll find the car they’ll love.
IV. Purchase Phase
Action: “I’m ready to buy a Chevrolet Tahoe!”
Since the purchase process isn’t linear — especially with a high-ticket item — know they may go back to the evaluation phase to perform further research, ask more questions, discuss further with their partner — they want to make sure they’re making the right decision.
- Think: “I know this is the right car, but I need to make sure since we’re spending a lot of money. I think I’ll talk it over with my partner, a few friends, and look at other reviews.
- Feel: “I’m excited because the process wasn’t as hard as I thought, but I am nervous about making such a big purchase right now even though we need it.”
- Do: “I’ve got all the information I need and the financing options work. Let’s do this!”
Goal: “I want to buy the car.”
WACMWD (What a CarMax Marketer Would Do): We know the buyer because they test-drove the car. We followed up via phone to field any questions they had, and proactively shared various leasing options. We want to close the sale.
- Remind the buyer of their financing and purchase options based on their budget and credit history.
- Remind them of our 30-day return policy (up to 1500mi) and 90-day coverage options.
- Drive home the benefits & outcomes of the vehicle they’re purchasing — why they came to CarMax in the first place: a budget-friendly hybrid for their growing family.
- How the kids and all their gear will fit in the car, the lower gas payments, the safety record so the buyer can buy with confidence.
V. Post-Purchase Phase
Action: “We bought the car!”
Now that they’ve made the purchase, they won’t likely buy another car for a while. However, they will interact with the manufacturer on service and repair between points-of-purchase. They may also recommend CarMax for their friends so periodic, proactive follow-ups are key.
- Think: “This car is perfect for our family. We love the safety features, the mileage, and the comfort.”
- Feel: “We’re no longer packed like sardines in the car. We feel relief — not only from a car that works for our family, but the monthly payments that aren’t making a dent in our wallet.”
- Do: “We loved our CarMax experience and plan to recommend them to friends and family.”
Goal: “I want to make sure I’m happy with our purchase.”
WACMWD (What a CarMax Marketer Would Do): We know to ensure the buyer is satisfied with their purchase and would recommend us to their friends & family:
- Check in on the family within the first 30 days.
- Be there for any questions they have including how to connect with the manufacturer for replacement parts or repairs.
- Encourage them to leave a review on CarMax.
- Ensure they’re on our email list where we provide useful information & tips on cars, safety, and maintenance. We also want to always be top-of-mind when their friends or family are looking to purchase a car.
When consumers make purchases, they have both practical and emotional considerations that impact each stage of the journey. Clearly, different people will do, feel, and think different things, but the point is to have a general understanding o their needs, wants, and actions.
Let’s revisit our car example. A customer might want to ensure the vehicle is:
- Fuel-efficient (practical)
- Roomy enough for the kids (practical)
- Cost efficient. Replacement parts don’t cost as much as the car (practical)
They also might feel:
- Overwhelmed by the options (emotional)
- Anxious about making a big purchase even though they know it’s essential (emotional)
- On-guard because they fear getting ripped off by a shady dealer (emotional)
Rational & emotional considerations fuel their thoughts, feelings, and actions at each stage. Knowing this is critical because you can proactively create targeted campaigns that deliver the right message on the right channel at the right time.
The objective is to keep the customer moving along the path by giving them the tools, resources, and social proof they need in order to make an informed purchase decision. Notice how every single step the marketer centers the customer in their actions.
The initial journey map is directional. You should consistently revisit the map and retool it based on insights from customers and campaigns. In further iterations of this journey map, you’ll prioritize the key digital and social media channels, and layer in your core messaging and marketing tactics at each stage.
If you’re a service-based provider, don’t think a journey map isn’t vital to your business. Journey maps separate you from the rookies. Remember, every purchase starts with a trigger, which is driven by a pain-point, challenge, want, or need. Your job is to identify what that is and how you can provide solutions, field their questions, and earn their trust.
I create custom videos for my clients at key stages of the project process, which has elevated me above many of my peers. Why? Because providing value is baseline. Customers care about the totality of their experience with you.
If you can’t think like and for your customer, you won’t be able to capture them, connect with them, sell to them, and maintain relationships for life. A customer journey is a conversation between two people — you and your customer — with some other travelers and tour guides popping in and out along the way. A customer journey isn’t a quarterly profit statement or all about you — it’s how you respond and engage with the people who are making your lifestyle happen.
You are not the hero.
If you think you are, good luck with that ego because your customers may stay for a little while, but there’s always someone willing to step up where you’ve fallen short.
Talk to your customers. Engage with them beyond selfish growth reasons. Show them you’re a human who has a bigger purpose and vision that expands beyond crushing their piggy bank. You’re not here to crush or kill — you’re here to be.
Create internal and external stories and experiences that center the people you serve.
Inventory your laundry list of strategies and tactics, messaging and marketing through that precise lens to see what holds up. Do the products or services you sell fulfill that promise? Do the stories you create and where you tell them guide them toward profitability?
Or do your products, services, marketing and messaging serve your bottom line? How long do you think that will last in a post-COVID world where two-thirds of all consumers buy on beliefs? Where 70% of people say trust matters more than ever? Who’s really going to trust those who are self-serving?
Instead of calculating ROI, clicks, monthly revenue, etc., why don’t we elevate customer-centric metrics? Customer lifetime value, customer success rates, reduced churn and abandonment, repeat purchase rate and loyalty? How are we not seeing the connection between our customers’ success and our own?
ROI means absolutely nothing in guaranteeing the longevity of your business and the health of your brand. I’ll fight anyone on this.
Growth, health, sustainability, viability and longevity all starts with language — the words we use. How we talk about who we serve within our companies and beyond their walls.