Engaging Consumers To Buy

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, October 26, 2010
While many industry margins have fallen during this seemingly never-ending recession, pricing pressure and increased competition have placed a greater pressure on product companies to innovate in order to achieve sustained profitability and growth.

At the same time, unconcerned with the challenges impacting manufacturers, consumers now have higher standards and expectations of what their buying experience should be than ever before. In a somewhat contradictory strategy compared with the call for a heighted purchasing experience, many manufacturers have unleashed extended lines of products with options and choices to suit every taste and budget. Retailers will carry dozens of different SKUs of kitchen mixers, refrigerators, digital cameras, etc., both from the same manufacturers as well as from their competitors.

Of course, the more choices, the better chance for a sale, right? In fact, as it turns out, our rush to offer so many options has resulted in consumers who are less satisfied with purchases than they have been in the past. According to the leading expert on the subject, Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology of Swarthmore College, studies show that when people are faced with too many alternatives, they tend to make bad buying decisions.

Why? First, when too many product features or categories are available, consumers find it difficult to understand and evaluate options. Second, the very fact that there are so many product choices and features creates a sort of purchasing paralysis (think: "deer in the headlights"). Third, with such a wide array of products, each with its various strengths and weaknesses, consumers tend to raise their expectations so that their preferred outcome is a single product with the highest-performing features in every category. Most of the time, this is an unrealistic expectation.

Unfortunately, the net result is usually: (a) they simply make no decision at all (customers abandon a store or a website without purchasing anything,); (b) they make a decision on the basis of one criterion alone (e.g., price), which they can easily understand; or (c) they make a purchase that is not the best for them, and end up being dissatisfied at some point down the road.

In fact, numerous studies have shown that even when the consumer makes the right purchase, if too many choices were offered, they tend to feel dissatisfied later. It's a lingering sense of uncertainty as to whether they've missed out on the one feature offered on another model that wasn't available on the product of their choosing.

A key component of any successful buying experience -- to capture new customers and retain the ones you've got -- is the creation of a positive emotional response in the customer. Given that manufacturers want to be able to offer as wide a variety of products, models and options as possible, retailers must create the right buying experience despite the challenges.

Even for those consumers who do a great deal of product research, the ultimate decision is never purely analytical. In a nationally acclaimed study, Dean Shibata proved that making purchasing decisions always involved intense brain activity in the frontal lobes, indicating a high degree of emotional processing.

A successful buying experience, therefore, must tap into that emotional aspect of the customer's decision-making. The mere presence of products on a shelf or on a website does not create an emotional experience. And offering supplemental support via a spec sheet, catalog or landing page does little to improve the situation.

A key to building excitement for a product is to include the customer -- to engage and interact with the customer, and make him an active part of the process. If the customer can inspect the product, see how it works, understand how its features meet his needs, then there is likely to be some emotional response to both product and process.

What marketers need to deliver is an experience that puts the consumer in control. In the driver's seat, customers should, at their own pace, learn about each product, understand its benefits and features, and identify how it works and potentially meets their individual needs. An engaging and interactive process establishes an emotional tie for the prospect and results in a situation where they are more likely to buy. And, they're more likely to buy the right products, and are more satisfied with their ultimate decision -- which leads to higher customer satisfaction, and ultimately, loyalty.

Marketers need to create engaging and rewarding experiences, paying close attention to ensuring that sales associates are better prepared to sell to customer needs and wants, delivering self-guided technology-based demonstrations, and including customers' interactions and feedback at every possible step of the process. By placing a significant emphasis on customer engagement and interaction, marketers can keep customers coming back for more.

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