After much searching and evaluating, or perhaps very little, consumers at some point have to decide whether they are going to buy. Anything marketers can do to simplify purchasing will be attractive to buyers. In their advertising marketers could suggest the best size for a particular use, or the right wine to drink with a particular food. Sometimes several decision situations can be combined and marketed as one package. For example, travel agents often package travel tours.
To do a better marketing job at this stage of the buying process, a seller needs to know answers to many questions about consumers' shopping behavior. For instance, how much effort is the consumer willing to spend in shopping for the product? What factors influence when the consumer will actually purchase? Are there any conditions that would prohibit or delay purchase? Providing basic product, price, and location information through labels, advertising, personal selling, and public relations is an obvious starting point. Product sampling, coupons, and rebates may also provide an extra incentive to buy.
Actually determining how a consumer goes through the decision-making process is a difficult research task. As indicated in the Newsline box, there are new research methods to better assess this behavior.
Newsline: Follow the consumer and see what happens
It seems that traditional market research no longer works with an increasingly diverse and fickle customer base. The methods marketers have relied on for decades—perfunctory written and phone
surveys merely skim the surface of the shifting customer profile. Says Larry Keeley, president of the Doblin Group, a Chicago-based design and consulting firm: "The surveys are nothing more
than tracking studies designed to measure if customers are a little more or a little less pleased with you than they were last year."
Surely there must be a better way. Wise heads in the arcane world of customer research are onto something called storytelling. These folks advocate far more probing research than ever before, advising companies to elicit real-life stories from customers about how they behave and what they truly feel. The notion may seem like a leap into the unknown, but some companies have discovered that these storytelling methods work. Great service and, ultimately, breakthrough products have resulted. Kimberly-Clark built a new USD 500-million diaper market using in-depth customer research. At Intuit, storytelling customers helped its software writers revolutionize the way people all over the US handle their money. US clothing maker Patagonia, soliciting true tales about how customers live and use their gear, manages to keep its product ahead of the curve.
At the heart of this new brand of customer research is a search for subtle insight into human behavior—not only emotion-laden anecdotes, but also unspoken impulses. Just think, for example, of the last time you made eye contact with an attractive stranger. A whole range of feelings washed over you, and at that moment it would be hard to argue with the notion that at least 80 per cent of all human communication is nonverbal.
At Patagonia, an outdoor-sports apparel company in Ventura, California, customer storytellers surf at the "Point" right outside the front door of headquarters. Founder Yoon Chouinard, who spends at least six months a year at the ends of the earth testing his company's gear himself, has made a point of hiring several of these customers so they could share their war stories in-house. He refers to them affectionately as his "dirtbags", people who spend so much time outside that it shows under their fingernails.
Patagonians collect such war stories from far-flung customers as well and use them as a marketing tool. Many of their wares are sold through a biennial catalogue that is unique among its peers. Instead of spending millions to shoot glossy spreads of unthinkably beautiful models, the company relies on its customers to pose while wearing Patagonia duds in exotic locales. This pictorial road map of customer adventures makes for great reading, but it has another role as well. The placement of customers' stories front and center proves that their opinions and experience are valued, and they respond in droves. "We have trained them to believe that we are serious about responding to their feedback and improving our products," notes Randy Howard, the company's director of quality. 1