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Customers hold the power. Help them stay in control

Martin Millican is the president and founding partner of Envoke.com, a Toronto-based lead generation software and service provider.

In case you weren't aware, your customers expect to be in control of their relationship with you.

If you're old enough to have ever seen a first-run episode of the original Dallas TV show, you can be forgiven if you haven't quite cottoned on to this fact yet. Truth is, the shift in control began long ago, but it was gradual enough not to notice. Thank technology for the change.

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At first, the introduction of graphical Web browsers provided easy access to what were mostly static websites. A major development in the evolution of the Web, as we know it today, but with minimal immediate impact on the dynamics of real-world commerce.

The next big shift came when Google's search-engine technology made it abundantly easy for anyone to access any information on the Web at any time, and Google used that position to disrupt the entire traditional advertising model. Apple then shifted control further by putting the whole Web experience in our customers' pockets. Since then, the Web has become more mobile-friendly, better at facilitating online buying, and has become an intermediary in our personal lives through social media.

We are undeniably in an age of an empowered, informed and demanding mobile customer. Before making any major purchase, consumers check reviews and prices on different sites. They find competitors in seconds and change their preferences quickly. Where once distributors, suppliers and direct-sales people controlled access to product information, our customer now has as much or more information than we do. The customer is now in control. So, how should our approach to marketing adapt? For most of us, our objectives are still about solving two problems: First, generating awareness and attention. And second, converting that attention into interest and sales.

Digital media tends to get most of the attention because its reach and its options are expanding so fast. Also, digital's unique ability to have its effectiveness tracked makes it much easier to prove its ROI. Social media is appealing because consumers spend so much time on it. Search-engine marketing works because it gets in front of potential customers at the peak moment of their interest. Online display advertising keeps coming up with new technological advances, such as programmatic ad buying for better targeting, and remarketing to win back potential customers who left your website.

Meanwhile, traditional media still has an important role to play. It's more difficult to track, but it still works. Print provides access to audiences that aren't necessarily available or easy to reach elsewhere. Radio reaches captive and broad audiences at particular times of the day. Outdoor has incredibly broad, yet precisely local, reach.

Yet, with all these options, generating awareness from digital and traditional media is getting more difficult. Customers tune out advertising and, in many cases, actively avoid our messages with ad blockers and PVRs. They've also become selective about whom they give their attention by using subscribed ad-free services, such as streaming television or satellite radio.

The counterintuitive approach – and your competitive advantage – is to focus on the second marketing problem. How do you convert more of the attention you already have into interest and action?

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What's important to understand is that the awareness and interest you generate from both digital and traditional advertising sources results in prospects and customers visiting your website. Focusing on perfecting the online experience you deliver is your best option for leveraging the attention and interest generated through your advertising efforts.

In most industries, there's still a large and growing gap between the expectations of the customer and the experience they're actually provided. Customers increasingly expect and demand speed, convenience, security, personalization and great service at their fingertips – but a lot of companies are failing to give it to them.

The first step in improving your customer's online experience is to change your mindset to match the new reality. Digital marketing is fundamentally collaborative – it's a never-ending value exchange between buyer and seller. When someone shows up at your website, they are providing you with their valuable attention. You must return the favour by meeting their expectations in the most convenient way possible. Thus, you need to make sure your website prioritizes the organization and delivery of the information they want, not just what you want to say. It's especially important to understand where the customer is in their journey. A prospect visiting your site for the first time with limited knowledge of your products and services – and possibly your category – needs different information than someone who's decided to buy.

Next, continuously engage with your online visitor. Provide valuable offers like free downloads, online or physical events, subscriptions, interactive tools, videos, online courses, chat or simply issue a request for personal contact. These offers can be traded for permission to communicate or to deepen the relationship. In this age of limited attention, permission is a valuable asset. It's your opportunity to stay top of mind and establish preferences. Treat it with respect by only sending useful and timely information so you don't get tuned out.

Getting and keeping customers is about providing a great customer experience from first interaction and keeping it up throughout the life of the relationship. The customer now wields all the power.

When we provide a better experience we'll get more attention and the attention we get is more valuable. In the future, the customer experience may be the only competitive advantage we have.

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