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    Why Do They Buy?

    Most people buy a product because it has the combination of features and benefits that appeal to them. Most of the time, customers buy products for all the reasons that we as marketers expect them to. However, there are always a few customers who buy products for reasons we haven't even thought of. This is almost as bad as losing a sale because we might be missing the opportunity to sell to a group of similar customers.

    Understanding specific motivations of consumers or business buyers can be a challenge. Most of the time, we know what motivates customers to make a purchase. We have a product that saves them some time, saves them money, and makes them feel good. Yet sometimes we can tap into an additional group of customers by understanding why they buy our product.

    While we may know the overall list of features and benefits that appeal to customers, we may not know exactly why or how a particular combination of features and benefits attracts particular customers. In addition, there are rogue customers who buy products for reasons we did not anticipate.

    In other words, we need to know why customers buy. How do they gather and process information? How do they distinguish one vendor's product from another?

    The goal in understanding the customer decision process is to learn how we can shorten the time from discovery to purchase. Once a prospect discovers he or she needs a product, we want to help that prospect quickly evaluate our product and decide if it's the best for him or her. The more we learn about the prospect's decision process, the better we can help him or her make that decision.

    Many warranty registration cards have a place for customers to mark the features or benefits that were important in making a purchase decision. However, that does not help us learn which feature was most important to them. And it certainly doesn't help identify when a combination of features was the key to making a sale.

    Online registration forms can sometimes be a little better, such as by asking visitors to identify which features are most important, second most important, and so on. This approach can provide a great deal of raw data that can be correlated with other profile data to better tailor the marketing message.

    As good as this approach is in gathering raw data to analyze, it does not allow us to discover new reasons for buying like an open-ended question does. Allowing customers to provide a sentence or two about the main reasons they made a purchase provides an opportunity to learn more about what motivates customers.

    There are several ways to allow customers to tell us in their own words why they made a purchase. One way, of course, is to provide a text area on a warranty registration form for them to key in a few sentences. This has the advantage of being able to collect information over the Web without any human interaction. However, that's also the bad news - there is no human interaction.

    For some products it may be valuable to survey recent customers via telephone or email and ask which features or benefits were most important to them in making their purchase. Frequently, it will turn out that a combination of basic features plus one or two special features did the trick.

    The use of open-ended interview questions, whether by telephone or email, is a labor-intensive process that isn't feasible for a large number of customers. But, surveying a small sample of customers can help us refine Web and printed forms that can then be made available to all customers.

    Even these surveys may not be able to spot a complex combination of purchase criteria. Sometimes it's best to conduct focus-group interviews with customers to learn the details of how they made a purchase decision. However, most companies find that more people don't buy a product than actually make a purchase. So, interviewing a group of people who evaluated a product but didn't purchase it can provide more understanding of decision processes that lost the sale.

    Even though surveys and focus groups are labor intensive, talking with even a few customers and noncustomers can provide tremendous customer profiles that cannot be obtained in any other way.

    Cliff Allen is the co-author of the book One-to-One Web Marketing; 2nd Ed., published by John Wiley & Sons, and has consulted with companies on strategic marketing for 20 years.

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