Reaching Customers on Their Turf

Where (and when) does your company touch your customers and prospects?

I’m not trying for innuendo here. Instead, I’d like you to think for a moment about all the daily opportunities for people to interact with your organization. For many of us in the Web biz, this seems like a no-brainer: They can interact through the Web or email, of course! After all, isn’t that where most of us spend our days — online, glued to our computers? Wouldn’t it make sense that that’s where our customers are, too?

Not necessarily. In fact, if there’s one thing that the current business climate has been teaching us, it’s that the world doesn’t begin and end with the Internet. While many folks have spent the last few years thinking that the Web was going to revolutionize everything it touched (and, in many cases, it did), the rest of the world has moved slowly onward, picking and choosing from the new economy, integrating the parts of the Internet that made sense to their collective lives.

At the same time, many of us involved in the new economy or the Web business have suffered severe myopia about our companies, sort of a Web blindness that comes from concentrating so hard on one particular segment of the world.

The results for many who banked on the Web becoming the dominant force in their customers’ lives have been disastrous: Witness the recent tanking of marchFIRST and the severe devaluations of the likes of Razorfish and Sapient. Believing their own hype, these companies felt that “complete end-to-end digital solutions” were the be-all and end-all of business, and they have suffered badly as the rest of the world has come to realize that e-business is just… well… business. (For a good blow-by-blow breakdown of typical hubris, check out this commentary on Razorfish’s 10Q filing.)

While billions were funneled into businesses that built “e-solutions” in anticipation of a future e-world where everything would be done online as the old, inefficient ways withered away, customers continued on with their not-always-so-“e”-lives. They continued watching TV, listening to the radio, driving to work (instead of telecommuting), working in offices, and talking to real people there. They continued going out to lunch, hanging out at bars after work, having dinner with friends, and watching the 11 p.m. news when they got home. Sure, along the way, they probably read their industry news online (as you’re doing now), checked their stocks on the Web, sent scads of email, looked up movie schedules online, and maybe even shopped for new cars or bought birthday presents online during their lunch breaks. Then they went on with their lives.

Of course, as anyone who uses email can attest, the information revolution radically changed many people’s work lives. There’s no denying that. But as for what they actually did day to day, change has come slowly.

What many e-marketers have failed to realize is that many people live their lives without an “e” in front of everything they do. If we’re going to market to them or communicate the value of our brands to them, we have to do so in a way that recognizes that we understand how they live… and then figure out how we fit in.

In the recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Patricia Seybold writes about this issue when she calls on businesses to start considering “customer scenarios” as a way to understand customer service.

She uses the example of a BestBuy salesperson looking at two refrigerator customers in the same way (as “refrigerator customers”) instead of considering the situations under which they’re buying refrigerators. In her example, one customer might be buying a refrigerator to replace a dead one (filled with melting ice cream), while the other is buying one for a new house. Seybold points out that the first customer (the one in a jam) has very different needs (speed of delivery) than the second (features, appearance).

The first customer might be willing to pay a premium for fast delivery, while the second may be in need of more assistance (but might be willing to pay more for a premium refrigerator). Treating them just as people who want to buy refrigerators and not taking into account their own buying scenarios means missed opportunities and missed revenues.

But this concept of customer scenarios is more than just something that makes sense in a retail environment — it has big implications for marketing. A customer’s experience with your brand (and how he internalizes that experience) can be very different depending on what stage he’s at during the buying decision process or on how he fits into the process. Understanding the customer and where and when he comes into contact with your message or product is vital to crafting brand experiences that work at that particular point.

So how can you get this understanding and put it to work in your own marketing efforts? One way is to use a little technique that I call “LifeScripting.”

Here’s how LifeScripting works. First, decide which type of customer from among your potential audiences you’re trying to reach. Got it? Good. Next, think about what that type of person does during the day, from the time she wakes up until the time she goes to sleep. What kind of media does she come into contact with? When is she watching TV, listening to the radio, surfing the Web, or driving in her car?

Next, if you’re selling a B2B product, think about the processes she goes through at work and how your product fits into those processes. If you’re trying to sell a B2B product, try to find out what kind of process your target customer has to go through to purchase your product. What kind of information does she need? Who has to approve her purchases? What kind of information do those approvers need? Who does your prospect talk to when she’s thinking about buying something? Which publications does she read? Which sites does she go to for advice? Who is in her network of influencers? What happens when she calls customer service?

Once you start thinking about all of these factors, you can start to get a pretty detailed “script” about what your customers do and how their buying-decision processes work. Once you have this script, you can start identifying all those places where they could potentially come into contact with your brand, whether on TV, in trade publications, on their favorite industry Web sites, or even through the emails they receive from friends recommending a certain product. If you want to successfully market your company, you need to be present at every place your company and your customers may come into contact… on the Web or off.

Perhaps the biggest fallacy during the last few years of hype was the assumption that the Web could do everything. It can’t. Like any other form of media, it’s just one more channel to our customers. The Internet will change everything… over time. We need to expect a slow-motion explosion: evolution, not revolution.

If we’re going to be successful, we need to figure out the best way to contact people within the context of their own lives. Don’t expect people to change their lives to fit your company’s way of doing things. Unless you’ve got an incredibly compelling product, people aren’t going to rearrange their lives. Like it or not, the world doesn’t revolve around your product or service.

As Web marketers, we need to understand how we fit into our customers’ lives and how to insert ourselves into their processes — wherever they are — on the Web or off.

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