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Learning Customers' Most Important Decision Criteria

  |  April 17, 2001   |  Comments

In the end, all that matters to customers is which products benefit them most. But different prospects consider different features and benefits to be most important. How do they decide? And how can you find out what they decide? Ask them -- on your Web site.

After all the advertising, marketing, and sales efforts have been completed, it all comes down to a prospective customer making a decision to buy one product over others. At that moment, all that matters to the customer is which product does the best job of meeting his or her needs.

Not all of customers' needs are rational, nor will they map nicely to a company's list of product features, but all perceived needs are important to the person making the decision. This holds true whether the customer is an individual consumer making a purchase or a corporate decision maker considering products from several vendors.

The Decision-Making Process

In many cases, customers have a good idea of how they are going to evaluate products and make a decision. But how many Web sites have you visited recently that ask how the purchase decision will be made? I'll bet very few -- if any.

Most Web sites -- both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) -- treat visitors as a homogeneous group of prospects all looking for the same set of features and benefits. In fact, however, the importance of each feature or benefit varies from prospect to prospect.

There are many similarities between how consumers make purchase decisions and how corporations make those decisions. Frequently, however, the evaluation process used in business is much more formal:

  • Several people, from different departments, form an evaluation committee.

  • Each vendor must make multiple presentations.

  • The committee evaluates, scores, and ranks products using a product-evaluation matrix.

When a corporation forms a committee to evaluate vendors and recommend a product, several things need to be done before requesting proposals from vendors. One of the first tasks is to determine the features necessary for providing the benefits the company is seeking. Since not every feature is important or required -- some would just be nice to have -- the next task is to determine the value of each feature.

The Evaluation Matrix

Determining the relative value of each feature can be handled in several ways. One common approach is to rate each major feature from one to five, with five being the most important.

Then, as information is gathered about each product being considered, the committee rates each vendor's product in each feature category. Typically, some vendors will do well in some categories and poorly in others.

The objective is to identify the product with the best overall ratings in those features that matter most to the company. This is done using a process such as this:

  • Determine the criteria to evaluate the products.

  • Determine the importance of each criterion, and assign a weight to each.

  • Score each alternative on all of the selection criteria (using a consistent grading scale, such as one to five, with five being the highest score).

  • Multiply each product's scores by the importance ratings to calculate weighted scores.

  • Sum each product's weighted scores to calculate a total score.

Here's an example of the matrix resulting from that process.

Criterion
Importance
Product No. 1
Product No. 2
Product No. 3
Raw Score
Weighted
Score
Raw Score

Weighted
Score

Raw Score

Weighted
Score

Ease of installation
2
3
6
3
6
3
6
Ease of integration with present system
4
4
16
3
12
1
4
Minimal additional technical staff necessary
4
2
8
3
12
4
16
Intuitive Web interface
3
4
12
4
12
4
12
Support and training
3
5
15
4
12
2
6
Cost
5
1
5
2
10
5
25
Total Score
19
62
19
64
19
69

In this example, all products have the same total raw score, but the total weighted scores show that Product No. 3 best meets the company's needs.

Importance to Marketers

For marketers selling in a B2B environment, it's critical to know how prospects make decisions.

First, knowing that prospects are using this type of analysis gives a vendor insight into where to focus its efforts to win the sale. Some companies include their decision criteria and the importance weights in request for proposal (RFP) documents sent to potential vendors. In addition, salespeople can sometimes obtain this information from contacts in prospect companies.

There is another way to obtain this data from prospects -- ask for it on your Web site.

You probably know the evaluation criteria used by most of your prospects. These criteria are used in marketing copy to describe the features and benefits of the products being sold.

What many vendors don't know is how important these criteria are to each prospect visiting the Web site. A simple way to obtain this data from visitors is to include small forms on the site that ask visitors to rank decision criteria by importance.

This data can be used to tailor content on the site to highlight the features and benefits that match the criteria important to prospects. By focusing on the benefits and features that are most important to these prospects, instead of making them hunt through a long list of product information, you are more likely to make a favorable impression on them.

Not every visitor is far enough along in the purchase process to have determined the purchase-decision criteria. Your Web site can lead such visitors to information on determining which criteria to use in making a decision.

By providing this information on your Web site, instead of waiting until a salesperson is working with the prospect, you have a greater chance of influencing how the ultimate decision will be made.

As potential customers visit your Web site, take the opportunity to learn which benefits are most important to them and, when possible, how they will be making the purchase decision. Doing so helps you learn more about your target audience, and it could put you ahead of your competition when the prospect is ready to make a purchase.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cliff Allen

Cliff Allen is President of Coravue, a company that provides content management software and application service provider (ASP) hosting for Web and email. Allen is coauthor of three books about Internet marketing, including the "One-to-One Web Marketing, Second Edition" (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

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