When I first joined Gartner, one of my first research efforts was focused on trying to define a graphical model that captured how B2B enterprises were approaching buying decisions. The model was based on research that we do on a regular basis to understand what influences technology buyers and how the approach the overall buying effort. The original research still feels valid. Those interested can review it by following this link: Tech Go-to-Market: The B2B Customer Buying Cycle for Technology Products and Services (for clients) or reading this blog post. Others have talked about it as well–for example,Dave Brock, regularly talks about “the squishy buying cycle.” We’ve continued to explore that path in subsequent research that focused on the role of trust in the buying process and more.
But we’ve come to realize that a focus on buying cycles is not enough. We need to focus on the entire customer life cycle. Why? Well, it’s somewhat obvious, but simply winning business is not enough anymore. You need to work to make sure the customer gets value, then you can retain their business, grow your share of wallet, and ideally create an advocacy relationship with your customer. Working with a number of colleagues at Gartner (most notably Jenny Sussin, Ed Thompson, Jake Sorofman, and Augie Ray), we’ve developed a new image for the customer life cycle. We feel that this image captures many (not all) of the nuances of the life cycle for a variety of scenarios (Ed and I walked through it as a model for deciding what to drink in an English Pub!). And it focuses on what is going on in the customer’s world –not the world of the provider/vendor.
Without further ado, here is our perspective:
Let me highlight a few of the most important points we focused on:
- The activity stream concept continues. The core idea is that buyers don’t compartmentalize their decision process. Because of free access to information, the explore (consider buying), evaluate (consider alternative options), and engage (decide who work with) at the same time–with one stream being most prominent at particular points in time. The exact “flow” will vary for every buying situation (but we can’t show that with a static image–fyi, Bruce McKenzie once animated our original image). We did remove “experience” as a stream (it was one in the original model. In hindsight, we realized that all of this (and the usage) is part of the experience.
- Buying is only a small part of the story, the “owning cycle” is potentially more important. This will be dominated by engagement, but buyers often think about other options. If the experience and value is high, then the buyer is less likely to explore and evaluate alternatives, but that may not disappear entirely. As they reach the period where they need to decide if they need to buy again, that becomes particularly important. The owning cycle has the potential to be cyclical as buyers repeatedly make decisions to buy again, buy more, etc.
- The overall experience, as noted above, is a key aspect of moving a customer toward an advocacy relationship.
- Time is relative. This life cycle could be completed in 2 minutes or 20 years. The buying portion could be long and the owning cycle short. Or vice versa. That is dependent on the product/service being considered. As with activity streams, this is not something that can be shown in a static image.
- The idea of abandoning is important (and something I don’t see in most other depictions). Buyers frequently decide to do nothing (abandoning during the buying process) or they stop using a product and decide not to buy again (abandoning during the owning cycle). This happens if they aren’t confident they will get value or if something else inspires them to move in a new direction (triggering an inspiration for a new life cycle). We show abandoning at a point in both cycles, but again, this could occur at any time in either. A nuance is that a good sign of potentially abandoning is when engagement (if it has started) starts to diminish (that is why it fades faster).
A few things, beyond the more dynamic elements, that the image does not show.
- Moments of Truth – Throughout this life cycle there can be many moments of truth – instances that trigger products to be added to the mix or rejected entirely, situations that accelerate decisions along the life cycle, or that cause abandoning. Moments are critical, but they are often unpredictable and numerous. They aren’t displayed, but they must be recognized. Providers, or sellers, should be conscious of this and recognize when a moment of truth occurs and seeks ways to create positive moments.
- Interim Decision Points – In many customer situations, there are interim steps between inspiration and buying or buying and buying again. Things like securing/confirming funding, receiving a product, onboarding, etc. Those key decision steps are quite varied, so we did not add them either. But once again, it is important to recognize that they occur. They are often linked to moments of truth.
You can expect to see a continued exploration of this model of the customer life cycle in future research across Gartner, and it will be part of my presentation at the Gartner Tech Growth and Innovation Conference. But the bottom line message of this move is simple: It’s time to use models like this to shift the focus from buying decisions to life cycle decisions. Buying is just one, often small, step in that process.
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