The different stages of Customer Experience: Merchant’s guide for 2022
Have you ever abandoned your cart on an online store? Found a new brand through Google? Decided against a purchase because it was hard to find a review? Chances are the answer is “yes”.
These all reflect situations you may run into as part of your purchasing journey as a customer. If as a merchant you’ve looked at conversion or retention rates and wondered why they are what they are then you’ll want to look at understanding your customer journey. Optimizing your customer journey will give your audience a more positive experience, and bring them back time and again.
What is the customer experience journey?
The customer journey consists of the different steps a customer takes in engaging with your brand. Think of it like a map with a starting point and an end goal, with different points in between. The earliest steps or stages involve the customer discovering your brand, and later steps are more focussed on what happens after they’ve made that first purchase. Each step has an effect on their overall customer experience, and some may not complete that journey all the way to the end. That might be because they’ve found another brand they want to shop with instead, or they weren’t happy with some part of your store experience. Once a customer goes through that experience from start to finish, they then may cycle back through certain stages before their next purchase.
These different steps are often called “touch points”, in other words the different points where your customer is interacting with your brand in some way. Touch points can include multiple different channels, all of which can lead the customer to the next step in their journey or cause them to drop off. For example, they may go to your product page and decide they want to make a purchase but when they go to checkout, the process is too long or requires account creation and this causes them to abandon their cart. Optimizing these touch points throughout your customer journey will help to create a more positive experience that leads to higher conversion rates, lower churn, and stronger customer loyalty.
Why optimizing the customer journey is important
In ecommerce, experience is everything. You’ll know who your competitors are in your individual industry and niche, and understand that customers have a huge variety of options available to them at the click of a button. Therefore in order to differentiate your brand from the competition, you want to deliver the best possible experience. It means that no matter if a competitor has an exact like-for-like product, your customer experience is so beyond what they offer that your store is the first choice for your target audience.
Let’s take a look at some facts and figures to demonstrate just how important experience is to your customers:
- 80% of customers say the experience a business provides is just as important as their products.
- Customers tell an average of 9 people about positive experiences with brands, but they tell 16 people if that experience is a negative one.
- 88% of customers are less likely to return to a site after a bad experience.
- 73% of customers say that experience influences their loyalty to a brand.
You can have the best products, but at the end of the day if your store experience is lacking somewhere then your customers will look elsewhere.
Mapping out and analyzing the customer journey allows us to better understand how different touch points impact customers and their experience. The more we know, the better able we’ll be to identify where our store isn’t delivering and what needs to be improved. It also allows us to see how these different touch points interact and overlap; rather than viewing them each as their own individual issue, they’re viewed as part of the same bigger picture. This holistic approach to optimization will ultimately lead to a smoother, better experience for your customers.
Stages of the customer journey
Let’s explore the different stages of the customer journey, and which steps are typically involved. Different sources have different definitions for how they’ll split the journey up - some may be as many as six or seven stages, some as few as three. The reason for splitting the journey this way is it helps us to focus on where the customer’s mind may be at in their purchasing process and the best way to optimize for that mindset. For example, what they need if they’re just discovering your brand for the first time will be different to what they’re engaging with later down the line when they’re ready to make a purchase.
The different stages and steps typically considered include:
To keep it simple we’re going to group these into three stages - Pre-purchase, Purchase, and Post-Purchase.
Pre-Purchase - Discovery and Consideration
In this early stage, the customer is just learning about your brand and products for the first time. They’re finding out about what you do, what your store is like, what your catalog looks like, and so on. There are a couple of key steps within this stage - Discovery, and Consideration. These indicate that the customer isn’t quite ready to purchase, and haven’t yet made their mind up. They need to be convinced through content, experience, and information.
This is the very first step in their journey - actually finding out that your brand exists. At this stage, we’re optimizing for those channels of discovery and finding out which of those could be improved upon. Those include social media, search engines, word-of-mouth recommendations, and so on.
The customer has now learned a bit about your store, knows your products exist, and is starting to decide whether or not they’re interested in learning more or potentially making a purchase. This is where they’ll start to engage more with other pages in your store - your FAQ, delivery information, other product pages etc. At this stage you may also be targeting them with ads on social media and other platforms, to try and lure them back at this step.
How to optimize at this stage
Essentially, this stage is your chance to grab the customer’s attention and follow it up with a really great first impression. To do this you need to consider where they’re discovering your brand, and what information they need you to present them with when they land on your store.
For discovery, look to your store’s traffic sources and prioritize those which bring in the largest volume of traffic. For many stores this will be search - on average, 53% of site traffic comes from organic search. SEO or Search Engine Optimization will be your biggest asset here; you want to grab their attention when they don’t even know your brand name yet. They may be searching for “best dog toys” or “custom jewelry”, and you want your store to be on the first page so your target customers find your store. SEO is a vast topic so we can’t cover everything here, however we have a number of other articles on our blog you can check out to learn more.
As for consideration, you want to optimize your key landing pages to cover as much information and convincing content as possible. These will likely be product pages or your homepage. Look at the content on these pages, and assess if they cover everything a new customer would need to know. Product descriptions, images, technical specifications, on-page reviews, page layout, and more are all details to look out for and analyze. Pay close attention to visual content; customers want to see different angles, perspectives, everything that comes with a product and use examples in order to get a really solid idea of what they’ll receive if they place an order.
Purchase - Acquisition and Purchase
Once a customer has learned a bit more about your brand, they may then be ready to make a purchase. Before we get too ahead of ourselves, there is still more convincing to be done and customers can easily fall off at this stage even if they like your products. They want to be sure of that purchase, and may start to compare your brand to others, and seek out validating social proof. Afterwards they’ll go through your checkout, and the initial steps of your post-purchase experience.
This is a sort of “final” decision making step in their journey before they get to checkout. At this point, the customer may look for reviews both on and off your site to get that extra push they need. They might also add items to their cart, make final comparisons within your catalog, check out information about your ordering and fulfillment process, or get in touch with customer service for additional information. Their intent is clear, but they’re just not quite there yet.
The customer finally decides to take the plunge and make a purchase. During this step they’ll go through your checkout experience, and those first initial steps of post-purchase. Your checkout process is crucial to ensuring customers don’t drop off at this point in their journey - it’s still highly likely even if they’re on the checkout page. However once they do complete checkout, they’ll be sent transactional emails, and the post-purchase stage begins.
How to optimize at this stage
The two steps within the “purchase” phase of the journey put your customer so close to placing an order, and to convince them to do so you need to give them a really easy experience.
To optimize for acquisition, you should…
Make it easy for them to find reviews - include these on product pages, star ratings on catalog pages, and link to external review sites where appropriate.
Add value to your cart page - Include links to information about shipping, detail any special offers such as a free shipping threshold, etc.
- Send browse and cart abandonment emails - Give the customer personalized recommendations based on their browsing history, remind them of the products they were interested in, and incentivize them to complete their purchase.
To optimize for purchase, you should…
Simplify your checkout process - Remove any unnecessary steps, and allow forms to be auto-filled.
Offer multiple payment options - This includes different payment gateways, as well as any other options your customers may use such as buy-now-pay-later.
Offer quick checkout options - These might be PayPal or Shop quick checkout on product pages, and also on cart pages.
- Add more information to transactional emails - Give customers links they may need such as those for customer support if they have any immediate questions or concerns.
These are just some basic tips for improving this stage of the journey. If you want to really dive in, consider looking into conversion rate optimization (CRO) which will allow you to get into the finer details of improving your purchasing journey.
Post-Purchase - Fulfillment, Use and Retention
The work doesn’t end when the customer places an order; their experience with your brand extends far beyond that. The post-purchase stage is where you’ll really make a great impression, and will decide for the customer whether or not they want to place another order in the future. No matter how great your products are, if your post-purchase experience doesn’t deliver then they’ll be more likely to go try another brand instead. They want to be kept in the loop as their order progresses, have a great unboxing experience, and then be given additional reasons to return to your store in the future.
This step covers a broad range of potential pain points for your customers. At this stage, they’ve parted ways with their cash and their order is officially in your system. From here, they want as much information as possible about their order - when it will be dispatched, where it is on its journey to their door, and who to contact if they run into any issues. Speed and communication here are vital - your fulfillment processes should allow for speedy dispatch, and if you run into any delays they should be quickly communicated to the customer. After dispatch, the customer will want updates on when they should expect the order to arrive.
Once the order has arrived, it’s time to unbox. Unboxing is a small but important part of their purchasing journey. An order which arrives in branded packaging, safely secured, and with extra personal touches will make for a memorable experience that will give a boost to their positive perception of your brand. Especially if the order is a gift sent directly to a recipient, then that unboxing becomes even more important.
When the order is in their hands and unboxed, it comes time for them to use it. You can’t control a lot about this part of their experience as it’s largely down to them however there are still small ways that you can improve it. Easily accessible product care guidance, instructions, additional information, and more can make all the difference to their experience of your actual product.
Retention and Loyalty
Lastly, retention and loyalty - this is the final step before the customer potentially cycles back through your customer journey for a future purchase. New customers are great, but turning them into loyal customers is vital. Loyal customers are worth as much as ten times their original purchase, and the probability of successfully selling to a loyal customer is about 60-70% compared to just 5-20% for a new customer.
At this stage, they want a reason to stick around and make a future purchase, and to be reminded of your brand and what you have to offer. They’ll perhaps engage with your social media channels and emails, or keep track of your loyalty program if you have one.
How to optimize at this stage
There are a lot of things you can do to make improvements to the post-purchase stage of your customer journey. These changes may seem small, but they’ll make a big difference to your retention rates.
To optimize fulfillment, you should look to typical pain points that your customers may encounter in general with ordering online. That’ll likely mean focusing on visibility on their order status - how easy is it for customers to find information about their order? What emails and SMS messages do you send? What does your tracking look like? One of the biggest ways you can improve your fulfillment process is by offering real-time tracking - 86% of customers say that tracking has become an important factor in their experience.
Optimizing the use phase of the experience can be tricky. You can control how many emails you send, you can control what your site looks like, but you can’t control what a customer does when the product is in their hands. You can however provide them with information and resources. Include helpful product care or use instructions in the package so they have it to hand as soon as it arrives and don’t need to go hunting around your site for that info. Send the same information in an email a couple days after the product arrives, along with links to additional resources and contact details for your customer support team in case they still have further questions or feedback to share.
There are many different ways to optimize for retention and loyalty, and while we can’t cover everything in one short paragraph here are a few top tips:
Promote a loyalty program - What better way to foster loyalty than a loyalty program? These can keep customers highly engaged, especially if you remind them of their status and perks regularly and directly after placing an order.
Offer referral or affiliate codes to loyal customers - Referral codes where the customer gets a kickback themselves can be a great way to not only encourage their next order but also acquire a new customer who may be highly interested in your brand based on the recommendation from their friend.
Send personalized recommendations via email and SMS - Customers don’t have time to sift through every marketing email in their inbox, make your emails stand out by using your store data to personalize product recommendations.
- Use segmentation to send top rewards to your best customers - Tailor the kind of incentives, offers, and messaging based on the customer’s history with your store. For example if a customer has a high AOV (Average Order Value) and orders frequently, you can offer them a higher incentive compared to someone who doesn’t order frequently.
Customer service is one area which spans across the entire customer journey. At different stages, they may want to get in touch for different reasons. For example in the Pre-Purchase stage they may have a question about a specific product. When they’re going through acquisition they might want to know more about your shipping costs, and in post-purchase they may want to initiate a return. Customer service is also a crucial part of the customer experience, with 96% of customers in one survey saying it was important to their brand loyalties.
This can then be something which impacts a customer’s chances of dropping out of their purchase journey with your brand. Slow response times in the pre-purchase phase may mean they end up finding another store to shop with instead. A complicated returns process can impact a customer’s future chances of placing a repeat order. Therefore it’s important to have a customer support strategy that takes the different stages of the customer journey into consideration. How do your support processes and policies address the different pain points a customer may face in these different stages? What will matter most to them - speed, simplicity, resources? Look at all these factors across the customer journey, and make improvements based on what will matter most to your customer when they reach out to your support team.
Your brand goes beyond your products - the experience your customers have while making a decision on whether or not to purchase your products is vital to your store’s success. Understanding the different stages of that journey they go through with your brand will help you to pinpoint where you might be losing customers, and develop a better experience that will outshine your competition.