The Missing Links in the Customer Engagement Cycle

customer engagement cycleThe Customer Engagement Cycle plays a central role in many marketing strategies, but it’s not always defined in the same way. Probably the most commonly described stages are Awareness, Consideration, Inquiry, Purchase and Retention. In retail, we often think of the cycle as Awareness, Acquisition, Conversion, Retention. In either case, I think there are a couple of key stages that do not receive enough consideration given their critical ability to drive the cycle.

The missing links are Satisfaction and Referral.

Before discussing these missing links, let’s take a quick second to define the other stages:

Awareness: This is basic branding and positioning of the business. We certainly can’t progress people through the cycle before they’ve even heard of us.

Acquisition: I’ve always thought of this as getting someone into our doors or onto our site. It’s a major step, but it’s not yet profitable.

Conversion: This one is simply defined as making a sales. Woo hoo! It may or may not be a profitable sales on its own, but it’s still a significant stage in the cycle.

Retention: We get them to shop with us again. Excellent! Repeat sales tend to be more profitable and almost certainly have lower marketing costs than first purchases.

Now, let’s get to those Missing Links

In my experience, the key to a strong and active customer engagement cycle is a very satisfying customer experience. And while the Wikipedia article on Customer Engagement doesn’t mention Satisfaction as often as I would like, it does include this key statement: “Satisfaction is simply the foundation, and the minimum requirement, for a continuing relationship with customers.”

In fact, I think the quality of the customer experience is so important that I would actually inject it multiple times into the cycle: Awareness, Acquisition, Satisfaction, Conversion, Satisfaction, Retention, Satisfaction, Referral.

Of course, it’s possible to get through at least some of the stages of the cycle without an excellent customer experience. People will soldier through a bad experience if they want the product bad enough or if there’s an incredible price. But it’s going to be a lot harder to retain that type of customer and if you get a referral, it might not be the type of referral you want.

I wonder if Satisfaction and Referral are often left out of cycle strategies because they are the stages most out of marketers’ control.

A satisfying customer experience is not completely in the marketer’s control. For sure, marketing plays a role. A customer’s satisfaction can be defined as the degree to which her actual experience measures up to her expectations. Our marketing messages are all about expectations, so it’s important that we are compelling without over-hyping the experience. And certainly marketers can influence policy decisions, website designs, etc. to help drive better customer experiences.

In the end, though, the actual in-store or online experience will determine the strength of the customer engagement.

Everyone plays a part in the satisfaction stages. Merchants must ensure advertised product is in stock and well positioned. Store operators must ensure the stores are clean, the product is available on the sales floor and the staff are friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. The e-commerce team must ensure advertised products can be easily found, the site is performing well, product information in complete and useful,  and the products are shipped on time and in good condition.

We also have to ensure our incentives and metrics are supporting a quality customer experience, because the wrong metrics can incent the wrong behavior. For example, if we measure an online search engine marketing campaign by the number of visitors generated or even the total sales generated, we can absolutely end up going down the wrong path. We can buy tons of search terms that by their sheer volume will generate lots of traffic and some degree of increased sales. But if those search terms link to the home page or some other page that is largely irrelevant to the search term, the experience will be likely disappointing for the customer who clicked through.

In fact, I wrote a white paper a few months ago, Online Customer Acquisition: Quality Trumps Quantity, that delved into customer experience by acquisition source for the Top 100 Internet Retailers. We found that those who came via external search engines were among the least satisfied customers of those sites with the least likelihood to purchase and recommend. Not good. These low ratings could largely be attributed to the irrelevance of the landing pages from those search terms.

Satisfaction breeds Referral

Referrals or Recommendations are truly wonderful. As I wrote previously, the World’s Greatest Marketers are our best and most vocal customers. They are more credible than we’ll ever be, and the cost efficiencies of acquisition through referral are significantly better than our traditional methods of awareness and acquisition marketing. In my previously mentioned post, I discussed some ways to help customers along on the referral path. But, of course, customers can be pretty resourceful on their own.

We’ve all seen blog posts, Facebook posts or tweets about bad customer experiences. But plenty of positive public commentary can also be found.  Target’s and Gap’s Facebook walls have lots of customers expressing their love for those brands. Even more powerful are blog posts some customers write about their experiences.  I came across a post yesterday from entitled Tales of Perfection that related two excellent experiences the blogger had with Guitar Center and a burger joint called Arry’s. Both stories are highly compelling and speak to the excellent quality of the employees at each business. Nice!

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Developing a business strategy, not just a marketing strategy, around the customer engagement cycle can be extremely powerful. It requires the entire company to get on board to understand the value of maximizing the customer experience at every touch point with the customer, and it requires a set of incentives and metrics that fully support strengthening the cycle along the way.

What do you think? How do you think about the customer engagement cycle? How important do feel the customer experience is in strengthening the cycle? Or do you think this is all hogwash?


Why most sales forecasts suck…and how Monte Carlo simulations can make them better

Sales forecasts don’t suck because they’re wrong.  They suck because they try to be too right. They create an impossible illusion of precision that ultimately does a disservice to managers who need accurate forecasts to assist with our planning. Even meteorologists — who are scientists with tons of historical data, incredibly high powered computers and highly sophisticated statistical models — can’t forecast with the precision we retailers attempt to forecast. And we don’t have nearly the data, the tools or the models meteorologists have.

Luckily, there’s a better way. Monte Carlo simulations run in Excel can transform our limited data sets into statistically valid probability models that give us a much more accurate view into the future. And I’ve created a model you can download and use for yourself.

There are literally millions of variables involved in our weekly sales, and we clearly can’t manage them all. We focus on the few significant variables we can affect as if they are 100% responsible for sales, but they’re not and they are also not 100% reliable.

Monte Carlo simulations can help us emulate real world combinations of variables, and they can give us reliable probabilities of the results of combinations.

But first, I think it’s helpful to provide some background on our current processes…

We love our numbers, but we often forget some of the intricacies about numbers and statistics that we learned along the way. Most of us grew up not believing a poll of 3,000 people could predict a presidential election. After all, the pollsters didn’t call us. How could the opinions of 3,000 people predict the opinions of 300 million people?

But then we took our first statistics classes. We learned all the intricacies of statistics. We learned about the importance of properly generated and significantly sized random samples. We learned about standard deviations and margins of errors and confidence intervals. And we believed.

As time passed, we moved on from our statistics classes and got into business. Eventually, we started to forget a lot about properly selected samples, standard deviations and such and we just remembered that you can believe the numbers.

But we can’t just believe any old number.

All those intricacies matter. Sample size matters a lot, for example. Basing forecasts, as we often do, on limited sets of data can lead to inaccurate forecasts.

Here’s a simplified explanation of how most retailers that I know develop sales forecasts:

  1. Start with base sales from last year for the the same time period you’re forecasting (separating out promotion driven sales)
  2. Apply the current sales trend (which is maybe determined by an average of the previous 10 week comps). This method may vary from retailer to retailer, but this is the general principle.
  3. Look at previous iterations of the promotions being planned for this time period. Determine the incremental revenue produced by those promotions (potentially through comparisons to control groups). Average of the incremental results of previous iterations of the promotion, and add that average to the amount determined in steps 1 and 2.
  4. Voilà! This is the sales forecast.

Of course, this number is impossibly precise and the analysts who generate it usually know that. However, those on the receiving end tend to assume it is absolutely accurate and the probability of hitting the forecast is close to 100% — a phenomenon I discussed previously when comparing sales forecasts to baby due dates.

As most of us know from experience, actually hitting the specific forecast almost never happens.

We need accuracy in our forecasts so that we can make good decisions, but unjustified precision is not accuracy. It would be far more accurate to forecast a range of sales with accompanying probabilities. And that’s where the Monte Carlo simulation comes in.

Monte Carlo simulations

Several excellent books I read in the past year (The Drunkard’s Walk, Fooled by Randomness, Flaw of Averages, and Why Can’t You Just Give Me a Number?) all promoted the wonders of Monte Carlo simulations (and Sam Savage of Flaw of Averages even has a cool Excel add-in). As I read about them, I couldn’t help but think they could solve some of the problems we retailers face with sales forecasts (and ROI calculations, too, but that’s a future post). So I finally decided to try to build one myself. I found an excellent free tutorial online and got started. The results are a file you can download and try for yourself.

A Monte Carlo simulation might be most easily explained as a “what if” model and sensitivity analysis on steroids. Basically, the model allows us to feed in a limited set of variables about which we have some general probability estimates and then, based on those inputs, generate a statistically valid set of data we can use to run probability calculations for a variety of possible scenarios.

It turns out to be a lot easier than it sounds, and this is all illustrated in the example file.

The results are really what matters. Rather than producing a single number, we get probabilities for different potential sales that we can use to more accurately plan our promotions and our operations. For example, we might see that our base business has about a 75% chance of being negative, so we might want to amp up our promotions for the week in order have a better chance of meeting our growth targets.  Similarly, rather than reflexively “anniversaring” promotions, we can easily model the incremental probabilities of different promotions to maximize both sales and profits over time.

The model allows for easily comparing and contrasting the probabilities of multiple possible options. We can use what are called probability weighted “expected values” to find our best options. Basically, rather than straight averages that can be misleading, expected values are averages that are weighted based on the probability of each potential result.

Of course, probabilities and ranges aren’t as comfortable to us as specific numbers, and using them really requires a shift in mindset. But accepting that the future is uncertain and planning based on the probabilities of potential results puts us in the best possible position to maximize those results. Understanding the range of possible results allows for better and smarter planning. Sometimes, the results will go against the probabilities, but consistently making decisions based on probabilities will ultimately earn the best results over time.

One of management’s biggest roles is to guide our businesses through uncertain futures. As managers and executives, we make the decisions that determine the directions of our companies. Let’s ensure we’re making our decisions based on the best and most accurate information — even if it’s not the simplest information.

What do you think? What issues have you seen with sales forecasts? Have you tried my example? How did it work for you?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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