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March 14, 2023

The Customer: An Unexpected Journey

If someone asked you what your customer’s journey to purchase is, could you give them an answer backed up by real data? Most companies can’t because frankly, unless you’re asking about it, it’s difficult to track. In this two-part series, I’ll address what can be done about understanding the full customer journey, from the buyer’s first thought to repurchase and/or offboarding, and how you can help your team have a 360º view of the customer.

Part One: Why Humans Buy

If someone asked you what your customer’s journey to purchase is, could you give them an answer backed up by real data? Most companies can’t because frankly, unless you’re asking about it, it’s difficult to track. Partially because not all of a customer’s journey involves your company. And partially because even within your company, everybody has their own job to do, and they aren’t thinking about — and therefore not talking about — the customer’s end-to-end experience. They don’t think about it until the moment when it’s needed, and then it’s too late.

In this two-part series, I’ll address what can be done about understanding the full customer journey, from the buyer’s first thought to repurchase and/or offboarding, and how you can help your team have a 360º view of the customer.

The Total Customer Journey

Why should you care about the total customer journey? Understanding the journey, even the parts that don’t involve direct interaction from your company, is crucial to being able to understand how your product or service fits into your customer’s life. Knowing how your product or service fits into your customer’s life is key to designing an experience they will love, pay more for, and tell their peers about. You want the customer to say, “They get me.”

Over the course of my career, my real-world experience as a product designer, a consultant, and as a consumer has led me to adopt the battle-tested Theory of Jobs to Be Done (JTBD) as architected by the late Clayton Christensen and Bob Moesta. I’ve found that it mirrors the real, messy way that humans decide to pull new products or services into their lives to make progress on a job that they need done. Using the theory, you can research, understand, and begin to predict buyer behavior. Then, you can form your company operations around that behavior to deliver incredible experiences.

The Timeline

Though the process of decision-making can meander and feel messy, when you understand causal factors, it makes sense and can become predictable. Because people, and therefore organizations, are by their nature unique, the exact events might not look the same, but the general phases do, and we can categorize the data we gather accordingly.

We’ll use Bob Moesta’s Jobs to Be Done Timeline for a structured look at the typical path a person takes when trying to make progress on a given Job. Keep in mind that sometimes this process can happen very quickly and will not look like it took all the following steps, even to the customer. But people rarely decide they have a problem and decide to fix it that instant. Usually, it has been on their mind for a while.

Diagram of the JTBD Timeline | Moesta, Bob. Demand-Side Sales 101: Stop Selling and Help Your Customers Make Progress (p. 70). Lioncrest Publishing. Kindle Edition.

First Thought

This is where every purchase begins. It is where the buyer realizes that there must be a better way to make progress than the way to which they are accustomed. Without this struggling moment, as Moesta says, there is no opportunity to make a sale.

This stage can be influenced by marketing, exposure to someone else using a product or service and making progress in a much more desirable, optimal way, or by someone just plain being frustrated. Sometimes entire companies are birthed from this stage, but exponentially more often, someone buys something new.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: How might you and your team be a catalyst for this first thought? Hold that thought.

Passive Looking

You probably recognize yourself here. It’s the part where the customer scours Google and YouTube, talks to friends and colleagues, and generally soaks up information to learn about different ways to get the job done. This can be a long phase, but it is where a person begins to build a mental framework around the options that are available to them. I have been in this phase for months, even years, especially on major purchases.

In this phase the customer is starting to notice, and even be algorithmically fed, advertisements because of their focus on the issue and the web activity associated with that focus. They’re reading blog articles, watching YouTube videos, maybe even wandering into stores; but they’re still just curious. They’re not ready to buy, yet.

Active Looking

Once a person is in the active looking phase, they have absorbed enough information to know that better is possible and is actually out there somewhere. They’ve also gone through some event that has served as a trigger that causes them to decide that it is time to make a switch, or that forces them into that mode. We can all think of situations where our hand was forced and we didn’t have a choice but to buy something or switch solutions.

For example, a customer I once interviewed was using a particular platform for their point of sale, but the software vendor stopped making and supporting their product, which had even been customized for this company’s use. A stakeholder on the customer’s team had wanted to change solutions for two years, but it took this event to trigger the active looking phase and ultimately the purchase of our product.

Deciding

The decision-making process is all about trade-offs between options, and there are always options. A customer can always decide to do nothing, even if the consequences are dire. Once someone knows their options, they have to weigh what is most important to them. The customer is assigning levels of value at this stage.

While certain aspects of your product or service are what they are, and will win the day or be weeded out based on what the customer decides is best for them, making sure the customer has everything they need to make an informed decision by this phase is absolutely critical. For example, the customer might watch product and how-to videos from competing solutions multiple times during this process to weigh trade-offs. Make sure you have videos available to help their decision-making process!

Onboarding

The decision has been made, the new solution acquired, and now it’s time to make progress. The impression you make at this point sets expectations, and creates a lasting, memorable impact on the customer. People will remember how your company and your product made them feel, so apply the requisite energy in your organization to meet or exceed expectations at this stage.

Experience design is paramount to owning and intentionally shaping the experience that customers will have. You want to control the things you can and seek to influence the things you cannot control.

Ongoing Use

Beyond onboarding, you want your product or service to become habitually used to solve the problem. Having a culture of consistency and excellence will enable your organization to consistently meet or exceed expectations. This is where loyalty is created. This is where reputation is formed. This is where you do most of the work to establish your brand in the customer’s mind.

Filling in the Timeline

Hopefully this is all intuitive to you and I’m not explaining anything profound, because any profundity — and therefore power — to be found in JTBD and its methods is in its simplicity and ability to explain causality, not in novelty or complexity.

Understanding causality in your particular situation requires information-gathering. You want to fill out the timeline with real data from real people.

Getting to Why and How: A Quick Start Guide

These are the steps I recommend following to uncover the reasons people buy products and services like yours.

  1. Identify where you want to make progress in your business. Unless you are seriously pressed for time, I strongly recommend you analyze quantitative data to find trends around your area of focus.
    - What are customer’s buying?
    - How much, or at what tier, are they buying?
    - When are they buying?

2. Pick at least 5–10 customers who are already purchasing your product or other products who you view as competing.

3. Interview those customers on why they made the decision to purchase that product or service. Give it an hour. Use this example of Bob Moesta interviewing a friend of mine as a guide. This stage is where you find out why and how customers buy, in their words.

4. Synthesize — compare all of the notes you gathered and find patterns — to find the things people were trying to become or accomplish by using the product or service. There should only be a few. If you have much more than that, you haven’t gone deep enough. These are your Jobs to Be Done.

5. Write these Jobs out as statements, “I want to make progress on becoming ______________.” or “I want to make progress on ______________.”

6. Socialize those JTBD statements, and use them to shape how your product or service, and the operations of your business, can come around the customer to help them fulfill their Job(s) to Be Done.

The Power of Understanding “Why”

Understanding “why” and “how” means you understand what causes a person to buy, whether it’s an individual consumer, or the final decision-maker at an organization. Your mind is probably already running with all of the things you could do if you could really answer what your customer wants to make progress on becoming or achieving.

We’ll dive deep on how to use your new superpowers in the next installment, but consider these as an appetizer:

  1. Marketing can create messaging that uses language and concepts that the buyer already uses to think about making progress.
  2. Sales can ask questions that can get responses like, “How did you know to ask that?”
  3. Reviews can look like, “It just works.”
  4. Customer Success can inform the team on how the journey is changing over time as they serve the customer every day.

In short, understanding the underlying factors that drive customer behavior enable you to create customer experiences that enable them to make progress better than any other solution, because yours fits in their life like a glove. Getting to the truth is a lot of work, but it is worth it. If you can’t do it, talk to me about an Extraction project, or talk to anyone who understands this process. You, your team, and your balance sheet won’t regret it.

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