7 steps to turn your customers into your sales force

Are your customers selling your product for you? If they aren’t, you are missing out on the chance to build a sales force that exclusively possesses the most powerful marketing tools out there — social proof and word of mouth — and who will work for you virtually for free.

When you design a marketing or communications strategy, it need not end with the sale (however that is defined). To get the most out of your program, your strategy has to extend to the customer’s experience of the purchase and the product. If you get it right, they can become loyal, repeat customers and advocates for your brand.

I think of this process in terms of the customer escalator — a seven-step process for building a free sales force out of your customers, clients, or members. This process is like the escalator in a department store, and you need to do something to convince your customers at each step to go up to the next level. What are you doing to bring your customers up the escalators through the steps of their purchasing decision?

The Customer Escalator

Whether the purchasing decision is a simple one like buying a book or a complex one like buying a car or selecting a college, I have found that the basic steps are the same. You can apply them to all kinds of marketing challenges.

Level 1: Awareness
You’ve run ads, sent direct mail, gotten earned media, or your product has been seen in the hand of a celebrity. If you are lucky, the customer has noticed. A tiny minority of people who’ve encountered your message have actually paid attention to it and are now aware of you. In the best-case-scenario, someone who likes your product has made a referral or recommendation. This is the easy part, yet how much of your time and budget are spent on tactics to build awareness? Too frequently, building awareness dominates the marketing effort, even though it is just one of many elements in a successful campaign.

Level 2: The 2nd Click
Now that the customer is aware of you, how do you get them to make “the 2nd click”? On many web sites, it is not unusual for more than half of the visitors to leave the site without making a second click. How many even make a third click? 10% is not uncommon. How do you get the customer into the showroom? Your strategy should envision ways of getting potential customers to stay and take a look around. You need to convince them that you have what they are looking for. If they are leaving in droves, you need to understand why. Simply measuring visitors is pointless, since most are window shopping. There are three reasons why customers won’t make The 2nd Click:

  1. You aren’t targeting well and are pulling in lots of non-customers rather than potential customers;
  2. You aren’t showing the customer the product they were initially looking for fast enough; or
  3. You aren’t intriguing or surprising the customer in ways that delight them enough to keep looking around.

Level 3: Capture
Once you’ve got the customer to make that 2nd Click and delve more deeply, how are you capturing them? Capture can take many forms, and it is often largely in the mind of the customer: they are here to stay. If you are selling on the web, you now have a customer who will click through 10 or more pages. If you are selling offline, you now have a customer who is convinced they might buy from you. If you are selling something that involves a more complex purchasing process, this is the point when you will want to offer some kind of free and easy way to “capture” the customer’s identity so you can continue to engage with them. It could be a signup for alerts about specials, a signup that enables them to use your site or service for free — or anything that creates a direct channel between you and the customer.

Level 4: Engagement
Once the direct channel to the customer is established — which could be a face-to-face conversation, a signup that gives you the individual’s e-mail address, or a follow on Twitter — then you are able to engage with your customer. In many cases, you have the opportunity to engage personally, one-on-one. Are you prepared for that? It’s easier to have the customer just sign up for a mass e-mail, but that’s not going to deliver them much value, and it isn’t going to do much for you, the seller, either, since it doesn’t take advantage of the personalized communication that is possibly once you have captured them. Your customer has connected to you as an individual. Is your sales process designed for individual interaction or do you treat your customers as a mass group (or a set of segmented groups)? Make the most of that. You may need to radically change how you interact with customers to make the most out of the engagement level. You may need to change how you staff the sales function to support this kind of interaction. On the other hand, engagement may be as simple as the customer adding items to a shopping cart: they’ve decided to try to buy, but they haven’t given you their credit card yet.

Level 5: Transaction
If you’ve succeeded in capturing and engaging the customer, you now bring them to the checkout. How are you making this an easy, delightful experience? How are you making it a step they will be motivated to complete? How are you making it a step they will want to tell others about and how are you encouraging them to tell others about it? What are you doing to make the transaction experience itself a part of your brand? Abandoned shopping carts are a good online measure of whether you are making the transaction step work. But how are you measuring what comes afterward? With online social media integration, I suspect this step is going to provide new opportunities for Level 6, Advocacy, as the process of making a purchase can automatically populate the customer’s social status on Facebook or Twitter — and if they do that from within your site, you can measure it well.

Level 6: Advocacy
If you don’t care about repeat customers or word of mouth, you can stop at Level 5: you’ve made the sale, shipped the product–you’re done! But you’re leaving a lot on the table. You’ve spent a lot to acquire the customer and make the sale — abandoning the customer now means you’re wasting a lot of your investment in that customer.

If you want to turn your customers into advocates for your product, service, or organization, then you need to include encouraging advocacy into your strategy. Follow up with customers who have made the purchase. Are they happy and satisfied? Encourage them to share their experience and make recommendations. In this Internet Age, remember that all your customers are also potentially publishers: they may have blogs, they may be on Facebook, Twitter, or Myspace and post updates for friends — they are sharing their life with other people, and if their experience with you is positive, you want them to share that. Provide tools and encouragement to make positive references and recommendations easy.

You should use follow-up to identify customers who aren’t satisfied and see if there is any way to reasonably satisfy them; sometimes an unsatisfied customer can be turned into an advocate through good customer service. The risk of not following up is that dissatisfied customers will complain. Remember, all your customers are publishers. They have blogs. They have Facebook accounts. They have Twitter. The megaphone is in their hands, not yours. Their complaints can reach a lot of people and and have a lot of influence.

Level 7: Recognition
Monitoring your brand online includes monitoring customer feedback, and when you see customers who have become advocates, you can recognize them in ways that will help ensure they become loyal, repeat customers and continuing advocates — your unpaid sales force. You could recognize them as a “Top Reviewer” as Amazon does, for example. You might deputize them in some way as a brand ambassador, giving them virtual or real badges with which to spread positive feeling about your brand. Happy customers have always helped generate new sales through word of mouth. On the internet, social media provide fantastic new tools that can grease the wheels of word of mouth. How does your strategy take advantage of the opportunities happy customers present for re-selling your brand?

If you do this right, your customers become your sales force, and help build awareness among other potential customers, and that leads new people into the escalator on Level 1, and the cycle starts again.

If you build your marketing strategy with these 7 steps in mind, you will create a marketing circle out of your customers that leverages social proof and word of mouth to build your brand and sustain sales over the long term.

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