Life in the modern world is messy. As consumers, we’re constantly bombarded with messaging from companies and brands, and our path to purchasing and using products and services is more complicated than ever. So, it should come as no surprise that in this day and age, there’s really no such thing as a neat and tidy sales funnel. Customer lifecycles—like the lives of their customers—are messy.
Still, while it would be impossible to present a single customer lifecycle model that applies to every single business out there, experts have settled on a handful of basic phases that are common to the majority of companies, as explained in this American Express OPEN Forum article: reach, acquisition, conversion, retention, and loyalty.
Phase 1: Reach
This phase (also commonly called “discovery” or “awareness”) is where the clock starts and the customer lifecycle officially begins. Well, sort of officially. After all, it’s tough to know exactly when a customer experiences his or her first contact with your business or your brand. In fact, it might be tough for the customer himself or herself to recognize that touch point.
Still, from a marketing perspective, it’s important to track those touch points as accurately as possible. That way, you can figure out which marketing and advertising efforts—both print and digital—are most effective in driving brand awareness and reach. By reviewing those metrics, you can get a good idea of the types of campaigns that give you the most bang for your buck—and thus, are worth your continued investment.
Here are a few ideas for measuring reach, adapted from this article:
Identify the most common search terms that are bringing people to your website for the first time.
Monitor visitor data (i.e., new website visitors and returning website visitors).
Keep a pulse on social analytics (especially new followers or other first-time user interactions) and online reviews.
Poll trade show and event attendees (i.e., ask them if they had heard of you before).
Analyze pay-per-click (PPC) and AdWords data.
Survey both current customers and prospects on how they heard about you.
Phase 2: Acquisition
Once you’re on a prospect’s radar, it’s time to actually initiate contact. Your mission: to turn your marketing contacts into leads—which, as this TechTarget page explains, are potential sales contacts. More specifically, a lead is “an individual or organization that expresses an interest in your goods or services.”
So, how do you turn someone who is simply aware of your brand or product into a potential buyer? In the most basic sense, it’s about interaction and engagement. This can happen via phone call, email, or other targeted online messaging. But remember, it’s not just about making contact; rather, it’s about making the right kind of contact at the right frequency. Gone are the days of indiscriminate email blasting. Modern consumers have to fight their way through a constant barrage of marketing communication, and if your brand’s approach is too aggressive—or if you overwhelm your contacts with messaging—you run the risk that they’ll turn and run in the opposite direction.
On the other hand, if you neglect your potential customers during this stage—or if you provide them with messaging or other resources that don’t hold their attention—then you also could end up pushing them away. In other words, it’s a balancing act.
To overcome these challenges, it’s important to know your audience. Tailor your messaging to specific buyer personas. Ask yourself:
What interests them?
What motivates them?
What are their goals?
What are their pain points?
Where do they go for information?
Use these questions—and their answers—as the basis of your communications. After all, if you can deliver your audience something of value—before they even become your actual customers—then they’ll be more likely to continue engaging with your business.
Furthermore, by taking a more personalized, targeted approach to messaging, you’ll avoid wasting time and energy attracting customers who aren’t a good fit for your company or your product. Sure, it’s exciting to see your lead database grow—and the more potential buyers you have now, the more actual customers you’ll have later, right? Well, sort of. Here’s the catch, as explained in this Sixteen Ventures article: “If you don’t attract, seek out, and acquire the right customers, not only will you have a harder time (they’ll be less profitable, harder to deal with or please, etc.), they’ll have a harder time.” In other words, while you might have a higher rate of lead generation, you’ll have a lower rate of customer success—and in the long run, that’ll cost you dearly.
This phase of the customer journey is a little more trackable in terms of concrete data, as it’s relatively easy to define the point at which a contact becomes a lead. It’s also the stage that often gets the most attention from marketers trying to quantify the success of their efforts. “Marketers have traditionally been focused on the front-end of the customer lifecycle, specifically, brand awareness and lead generation,” states this CIO article. “Their job was to fill the funnel for sales people to convert into revenue.”
As this KISSmetrics article explains, there are two types of acquisition metrics you’ll want to consider: those that tell about the “what” and those that tell you about the “who.” More specifically:
“What” analytics tools allow you to do things like “track traffic, view sources and referrals, set up event and goal tracking,” the article states. Perhaps the most common tool for tracking these data points: Google Analytics.
“Who” analytics tools, on the other hand, help you answer questions like, “Who is viewing your website? What did they do before and after they signed up? How is your site being used?” the article continues.
Ideally, you’ll incorporate both types of metrics into your acquisition-tracking strategy. But, deciding on the specific data points you want to track is easier said than done. And, as KISSmetrics advises, “You…need to be sure you’re monitoring the right metrics because, rest assured, you can’t monitor them all.”
To figure out which metrics are right for you, start by clearly defining your goals. In this case, as KISSmetrics suggests, the goal is relatively simple: acquiring customers. From there, work backwards to build a funnel. “Maybe the top of the funnel is an email submission. From there, an email is sent about a free trial offer. Finally, the free trial users will convert to paying customers,” the article explains.
Now, come up with three core metrics for each of those three funnel stages. Two examples: the number of people who provide their email addresses and the percentage who convert to paying customers. “For each of your selected metrics, be sure you can demonstrate how that number impacts the goal at that stage of the funnel,” the article continues. That means you should steer clear of so-called “vanity” metrics like social fans and followers, as they don’t have any real value with respect to your defined funnel.
Furthermore, keep in mind that in this day and age, measuring marketing performance doesn’t stop at the point when a contact becomes a lead or a lead becomes a qualified lead—at least not for those companies looking to rise above the competition in an increasingly crowded marketplace. As CIO goes on to point out, “…average performers spend more time and budget on front-end awareness and acquisition activities, such as volume of leads generated and the number of inquiries generated…In contrast, top performers and the companies they work for take a more holistic view of the customer. Their metrics for success are response rates, sales accepted leads and sales qualified leads, not merely lead generation.”
Phase 3: Conversion
This is where the rubber meets the road. In other words, you win the sale and the prospect becomes a customer. The key to success in this phase is focusing on selling the relationship—not just the product. Buyers—especially those interested in B2B SaaS solutions—are looking for companies that will act as their partners, not merely their suppliers.
At the most basic level, conversion happens when a customer actually remits payment to begin using your product or service. On that note, as Sixteen Ventures points out, it’s important “that you have a way to collect payment from the customer, in a way that is congruent with their preferred method of payment.”
One of the most important sales conversion metrics is conversion rate, which tells you what percentage of leads actually ended up turning into customers. As illustrated here, the basic formula for conversion rate is:
Conversion Rate = (Total Number of Sales ÷ Total Number of Leads) X 100
For example, if you made 30 sales last year out of the 100 leads you generated over the same time period, your conversion rate would be 30%.
You can also track your conversion rate with respect to other marketing metrics—website traffic, for example. If you wanted to find out the percentage of your web visitors who ended up purchasing your product, you could do so using the following equation:
Conversion Rate = (Total Number of Sales ÷ Total Number of Unique Visitors) X 100
Obviously, your conversion rate isn’t going to be 100%. You’re going to lose some sales. And at that point, the customer lifecycle for those prospects will come to an end. But that doesn’t mean you should immediately seal their files and lock them away forever. Instead, look at lost sales as learning opportunities. Ask:
What ultimately caused the prospect to say “no” instead of “yes?”
Was it a mistake at the sales level?
Did you do something to alienate the buyer?
Was your product poorly suited to the prospect?
Was the prospect misinformed about the product?
These are all questions you should be asking—and answering—each time you miss a shot. Furthermore, you should be tracking and storing this information so you can use it to inform future sales and marketing efforts and strategies.
Phase 4: Retention
Okay, you’ve scored the touchdown (i.e., made the sale). But, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won the game. After all, the customer truly holds the power; chances are, there are a lot of other options out there, and in the modern marketplace, it’s easier than ever for customers to jump ship or walk out your back door, never to return. That’s why, as mentioned in the section above, it’s so crucial that you form a strong partnership with each customer.
In reality, the retention phase includes several smaller phases, some of which are ongoing:
The onboarding process begins immediately after purchase. Your goal is to get your customers up and running as soon as possible. But that doesn’t mean handing them the keys and turning them loose right off the bat. After all, if they attempt to use your product with no guidance or training, they probably won’t be successful, and that will lead to frustration—which in turn, could lead them to regret their purchase down the road.
Instead, you should create a checklist of all the items (i.e., milestones) that your customers must complete in order to use your product successfully from the first time they put the key in the ignition. At minimum, that list should include:
Migrating the customer from his or her previous system to your system (if applicable)
Ensuring the customer’s technical setup meets your requirements
Training the customer to use your product through self-guided learning systems, live and/or virtual training sessions, knowledge base materials, and/or consultative phone calls
While this checklist should help form the basis for your onboarding program, be careful not to let it completely dictate your approach. After all, successful onboarding isn’t just about crossing to-dos off of a list; you should be working toward an overarching goal (i.e., empowering the customer to use your product to its fullest potential).
To measure the effectiveness of your onboarding program—and identify opportunities for improvement—you should be collecting and tracking a few different data points. According to this article, these may include:
days to onboard a new client
days to achieve key milestones
number of customer interactions during onboarding process
Compare the averages for these metrics over time to determine whether you’re improving, highlight areas where adjustments may be necessary, and measure the effectiveness of any such adjustments.
Finally, don’t stop at merely collecting data. To really get a feel for how you’re doing, you’ve got to get real, live feedback from your audience. “Getting qualitative feedback from your customers can uncover holes in your program and help guide you to make better decisions that data points may not be able to uncover,” the above-cited article continues.
Remember, onboarding is your customers’ first real experience with your product and your company, and the impression you make during the onboarding process will stick with them—and influence their satisfaction level—for the rest of the customer lifecycle.
Once a customer has completed the onboarding process and has begun using your product, it’s absolutely critical that you keep the lines of communication open in case the customer has any problems, questions, or concerns. This is especially true during the first 90 days, because if the customer does not immediately begin to see value in your product, then he or she will be much more likely to ultimately leave you. “This is a critical phase of the customer lifecycle…either you engage them here (what that means is 100% dependent upon the customer in the context of what they’re trying to—or would like to—achieve with your product) or you lose them forever,” Sixteen Ventures explains.
This is where churn rate comes into the picture. Simply put, your churn rate tells you how many existing customers you’re losing—and how fast they’re leaving you. Companies that fall victim to the ill effects of churn often are those that put all of their focus and energy into closing new deals, and then disappearing the moment the customer hands over his or her money.
Unfortunately, support—even during the initial 90-day period—often is provided on a reactive, rather than proactive, basis. Instead, companies should shift to an introductory support model organized around known milestones that are clearly laid out for the customer. “Rather than waiting for your customers and users to get lost and feel anxious about what to do next—or how to do it—you should build a proactive approach to Functional Support into your lifecycle messaging (ideally pegged to activity),” Sixteen Ventures writes.
And that spirit of proactive support shouldn’t fade when a customer hits the 90-day mark. Instead, companies should monitor their data to look for patterns that might indicate a customer is having trouble—or could potentially have trouble at some point in the future. That way, you can intervene before those issues negatively impact customer experience.
Still, even with a proactive approach to customer support and customer success, it would be impossible to anticipate customer problems and needs 100% of the time. So, you must provide your customers with an easy means of obtaining on-demand support so you can correct problems promptly and get back to delivering value to those customers as quickly as possible. On that front, there are a few items you should be tracking to ensure you provide the best support experience possible:
Total volume by channel. This will help you maintain appropriate staffing levels and determine a strategy for using various channels appropriately in order to optimize customer experience. For example, Wistia removed the phone number for its support line from its website because based on research the company conducted, customers obtained a better experience when they submitted support tickets via email rather than via phone.
Response time. Most customers expect to hear back from a company’s support department within a few hours of submitting a request or ticket, but at the very least, you should be tracking your 24-hour response rate. Taking longer than a day to respond to a ticket will severely impact customer happiness.
First contact resolution rate. The fewer interactions it takes to resolve a customer’s problem, the more satisfied that customer will be. You should be shooting to resolve a customer’s issue the first time he or she contacts your support department.
Help delay and abandonment rates. Once a customer makes live contact with you (e.g., via online chat or phone), how long must that customer wait for assistance. If it’s longer than five minutes, you could be in trouble. And if a large percentage of customers are abandoning those interactions before they’ve received the help they need, you could be in even bigger trouble.
Moments of delight. It’s important to celebrate your triumphant moments. It’s even more important to dissect those moments in the interest of achieving even more of them. After all, satisfied customers are the building blocks of word-of-mouth referrals and positive reputation. So, each time one of your support representatives reports a “wow” moment, be sure to record the factors leading up to that success. Then, incorporate that information into continued employee training.
One of the reasons support is so crucial during the first 90 days after sale is that this is the period during which the customer should successfully adopt your product. What does that mean? It means the product becomes integral to the customer’s daily activities and operations.
Within 90 days—a full financial quarter—the customer should see clear value in your product. But if the customer doesn’t fully adopt the product, then he or she probably won’t see those results. And in the absence of results (i.e., return on investment), there’s no incentive for the customer to continue using your product (i.e., renew his or her subscription).
Thus, as explained in the section above, you should monitor adoption by tracking customer use, activity, and progress toward defined milestones. To get a feel for the specific data points you should be tracking, start by digging into your churn data. Pinpoint those customers who have left you because they didn’t get enough value from your product. Why weren’t they seeing value? Could you have done something to change that?
As for tracking usage for current customers, obviously the easiest place to start is capturing login information (if your customers must log in to use your product). After all, if a customer isn’t logging in very often, they aren’t even getting a chance to experience ROI.
Next, take a look at which product features the customer is using most often. Are they primarily basic features—which tend to deliver less value? Or are they the more in-depth, “sticky” features—the ones whose functions are much more difficult to replace? The answers to these questions should help define your customer success initiatives during the customer adoption phase.
When it comes to tracking usage, there are two main ways to capture this data:
Feeding in-app usage data for users, companies, and time periods to a database or data warehouse.
Using tracking codes on your web pages to track page views and actions (i.e., clicking certain links or buttons).
Remember, though, that isolated metrics aren’t super useful when it comes to formulating strategy. Rather, you should focus on usage trends. In other words, don’t just look at the usage data for a single week; also compare that data to that gathered over the last 30 weeks.
The only way to ensure your customers are happy and successful is to continually engage with them. This includes monitoring their satisfaction through:
Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys,
customer health/happiness indices,
customer advisory boards, and
customer outreach initiatives.
Getting the most out of your engagement efforts means harnessing the combined power of technology and human interaction. After all, technology might be able to pinpoint areas of opportunity, but it alone cannot ensure your company continues to deliver value.
To do that—and thus, keep your customers—you have to continue nurturing them long after conversion and onboarding. Specifically, you must:
build and maintain good relationships
initiate contact at the right times
anticipate issues before they affect your customers’ feelings toward you, and
upsell and cross-sell when you see the potential for a particular feature or product to add even more value for a certain customer.
Your customer engagement management efforts should build off of those you initiated during the adoption phase. Even after the initial 90-day period, you should continue monitoring usage and behavior patterns and use that data to execute on the bullet points listed above. As this article explains, “…consolidating this information and identifying trends is crucial…to measure [customer] progress and take strategic action to help drive future revenue and reduce churn.” Furthermore, “Monitoring social networks using sentiment analysis to mine social networks, gives visibility to the company’s reputation at the macro level.”
Once you’ve collected and analyzed that data, you can use the results to create targeted messaging to users through in-app messages, live chat, emails, or phone calls. “In all cases, the company must prioritize efforts to provide excellent content so the messages are most valuable to the user,” the above-cited article continues.
You should be engaging with your customers across the entire spectrum of the customer lifecycle. However, keep in mind that the elements of engagement will change as the customer progresses through his or her lifecycle. In other words, you won’t—or at least, you shouldn’t—engage with your one-week-old customers the same way you engage with your one-year-old customers.
Many companies view upselling and cross-selling opportunities as a means of extracting as much revenue as possible from each customer. But that mode of operation isn’t sustainable in the long run. Why? Because if you upsell and cross-sell with reckless abandon, you can’t be sure you’re actually providing additional value to the customer. And if you’re not, your customers will catch on—and when they do, boom: all trust is lost. It won’t be long before those customers walk out the back door.
Instead, you should approach expansion with a goal of helping your customers extract as much value out of your product as possible. And as Sixteen Ventures explains, “The way that we do that is to create a customer experience that delivers increasing amounts of value over time, creating a natural growth in base-product use, a logical expansion into additional functionality, and where appropriate, adoption of adjacent products from your company.”
Again, as discussed in the previous section, this means using data to launch intelligent expansion efforts—ones that truly will deliver value.
Phase 5: Loyalty
In a perfect world, every single customer you acquire would make it to this stage. At this point, the customer is not only satisfied with your product, but also delighted. He or she is a brand ambassador: someone who sings your praises via online and in-person reviews, recommendations, or testimonials—all of which are extremely powerful when it comes to attracting more customers: “Social Proof is amazingly powerful…when your Ideal Customer prospects see others like them using and succeeding with your product, there’s a level of validation that trumps just about everything else you say or promise,” Sixteen Ventures explains.
In addition to keeping an eye on customer reviews and ratings, you can track loyalty using retention measures such as churn rate and renewal. If you’ve done everything right, those renewals should really be non-events; in other words, you should continue getting the same revenue—or, if you’ve implemented a successful expansion strategy, even more revenue—as time goes on.
Additionally, you can get a pulse on customer loyalty by creating a referral program and tracking its use. For example, you could provide program participants with unique sign-up pages where they send their referrals. When done right, these types of programs can produce great results—especially if you offer some type of reward or incentive to one or both parties.
If you don’t yet have the resources to maintain such a program, you could simply include a field in your regular sign-up form where new customers can enter the name of their referral source. Finally, be sure to have your sales team record referral information in your CRM.
Whew—that was quite the epic saga. If this whole customer journey thing has you feeling a bit overwhelmed, don’t worry. In customer lifecycles—as in life—the best approach is to take it one day (and one phase) at a time. Plus, while it might be tough to take a data-driven approach to life—that is, of course, unless you track all of your daily activities as data points—customer lifecycles are ripe for data collection and analysis. So, let the data science be your guide. Implement systems and software to measure and track customer success, and watch your base of engaged, loyal customers grow.