These young entrepreneurs have created some innovative products that are technically sound. Within each company, I have found a high level of technical skills. (That seems natural.) In addition, they understand and use many of the latest social-media platforms to communicate: they tweet, set up Facebook pages and LinkedIn Accounts. They Skype and send mass email messages. They’re familiar with the latest iPhone apps, understand much of wireframing, and know how to use Dropbox.
However, as I worked with them, it struck me that—though they have specialized, process-oriented skills in particular disciplines—they have a nearly complete lack of understanding of the communication skills that lead to successful customer journeys. In other words, even though they’ve created products that could sell, most lack the key to sales, repeat business, and long-term success: the ability to describe why anyone would want to purchase their products.
In this article, I’ll show you how you need to think to create customer experiences that lead to sales. None of these outcomes happens until you make sales. Lots of sales!
Motivating Sales: Customers Are People, Not Things
Technological advances are in large part to blame for much of the trouble. Many established companies—not just startups—have lost sight of the basic reality that their market is made of people, not gadgets. To get buyers to make a purchase, we must motivate them to take action. Therefore, to create effective sales systems and marketing materials, we should rely on positive reinforcement. All of us who shop using search-engine queries understand that we, as customers, are one click away from rejecting one site and landing on another. To be successful, we need to make customers want to stay.
I believe that the lack of a few basic skills relating to effective communication causes more business failures than any other factor. Many consultants who I have spoken with recently agree. Often, business owners wrongly assume that, because their process-oriented approach has gotten their product to market, they can apply the same approach to creatively selling their products. But communicating with people effectively is the key to success in making sales. This is true of any marketing medium, but it is especially critical in meeting business expectations for Web sites.
Asking the Right Question: A Surprising Discovery
When preparing to write this article, I became aware of a subtle, yet simple theme running through much of my research—in many of the scholarly articles and recent industry blog posts that I’ve read. This theme relates materially to one important skill that I learned my first day on the job with Scott Paper Company many years ago—a skill that is also relevant to creating a successful customer experience: how to create a basic benefit / feature statement. Selling any product or service, regardless of its simplicity or complexity, starts with the ability to ask and answer this question: how do you take a set of facts about an existing or planned product and craft a statement about it that will motivate customers to take action? At the very least, taking action means getting customers to call or email you in search of whatever further information they need to make a purchase decision. So, how can we create a very simple benefit / feature statement that will motivate a purchase? I’ll get to that shortly.
Note—To avoid unnecessary confusion, some brief definitions are in order:
- features—The features of a product or service include its characteristics and functionality. These are facts about what a product is.
- benefits—A product’s benefits are what its combined features enable a customer to accomplish. Benefits are personal. They answer the customer’s question: why would I want to use this product or participate in this service?
Avoiding Customer Confusion by Communicating Clearly
Leading psychologists tell us that human beings avoid overly complicated situations that they have trouble understanding. Most of the time, people simply don’t like to think very hard. We would rather be spoon fed. Empirical data from studies evaluating the effectiveness of Web site content tell the same story. Recent cognitive studies have suggested that our inattention to detail relates to an inherent survival mechanism in the most primitive, reptilian part of our brain. This is also where unconscious thought begins. Combine those findings with that fact that the marketing world—I include myself in this—has developed a penchant for flowery words that mean very little, and we can begin to recognize the problems we have caused.
Here is an example of marketing speak, along with my comments: “We are an innovative firm”—who doesn’t claim this?—“with a proven track record”—everyone has a proven track record—“as a solid service provider”— if you fulfill any need, you have provided a service and this is no big deal. “We offer a dynamic approach”—what the heck does that mean?—“to delivering world-class service—as defined by whom?—“through a collaborative approach”—you wouldn’t just do it without me, would you?”—“that delivers outstanding customer experiences to our clients”—they had better be outstanding, or you are out. Any company that has such marketing speak on their Web site or in any of their marketing materials has likely created a customer experience problem.
Now, here is a real-world example of marketing speak in action. While working with a visual designer to prepare for an initial call on a new client, I asked the client what they wanted in a new Web site. Their answer: “We want it to be cutting edge.” Do you see the problem? So I pressed on, asking a series of questions with the intent of uncovering the truth of the matter. I next asked: “What does cutting edge mean?” Their answer: “Modern and up to date.” My follow-up question: “Help me to understand what modern means.” Their answer: “We want customers to feel comfortable.” Now, we were getting close to the heart of the matter, so I said: “Making your clients feel comfortable is important. How do you propose that we make them feel comfortable when they get to your Web site?” Their next answer was finally what I was after: “Make the site simple to navigate and easy to understand.” That was a lot more meaningful than cutting edge.
My use of this series of questions is an example of the laddering technique—a highly successful method for discovering the underlying meaning of ill-defined language. As you can see, the meaning of the client’s original request for something “cutting edge” could have been quite different from what I might have assumed had I not asked these clarifying questions.
Making a Great Start by Answering Three Simple Questions
Dr. Flint McLaughlin, founder of MecLabs—an independent research lab that focuses exclusively on marketing and sales research—has suggested a three-step formula for the creation of effective Web sites and landing pages. When you craft the information that appears on each Web page properly, it will answer three questions that anyone landing on the page would pose:
- Where am I?
- What can I do here?
- Why should I participate?
This simple set of questions relates directly to the basic benefit / feature statement that I learned to create at Scott Paper:
- Where am I?—A picture that is presented in the right context might provide a good start. This is enough to let customers know what they’re looking at.
- What can I do here?—A simple and very direct description helps—a slogan, tagline, or title that communicates the main idea. Something of substance must quickly follow.
- Why should I participate?—This is the place for the substantive answer—right up front. If I keep reading, what’s in it for me? How will I gain ground or prevent a loss?
The answer to this last, vital question is the one I find missing most often, and the one that leads to most failures. There is ample research to support this finding, which is no longer in question. In your own browsing, how many times have you read all the way through a Web site’s home page only to find that you are still not sure what a company is offering? Was it a horrible customer experience? And what did you do when you encountered such a site? Click!