Path in a Japanese garden, by Bucknut at DeviantArtFasten up, this is a long post on the subject of emotional landscaping. First: how exactly do you turn a prospective customer into a paying one? And down below, my take on how it works for all you good people selling coaching and counselling as opposed to widgets.

You can find previous posts in the series here:
Website to Wonderful, 1: Makeover Edition (Introduction)
Website to Wonderful, 2: How not to make your visitors’ eyeballs bleed
Website to Wonderful, 3: Designing your site with real users in mind

If the product’s good, the path should match

We built a garden office this summer, which I’ve just moved into. It’s a lovely space, tall and airy. Unfortunately, in the course of building the studio, the builders (aided eagerly by the dog) trashed the garden completely. Right now, the journey from side gate to studio involves a muddy dash and a stagger over the potholes.

It’s great once you get there, but the journey is not very pretty.

I feel a metaphor coming on.

In my last post, we looked at all of the different kinds of customer journey, small and large, that you need to consider when putting your site together. Today’s post addresses the core online journey - how your readers and prospects become actual customers. (And how you can make that easier)

If your site provides something of value, then there is a point – maybe one point or many – where your site visitor says yes, I can act. They can enter their details, invoke Paypal and Visa, ask for more information, book a tour…but whatever the site offers, they can commit with confidence. (They can also be worried or excited about their commitment, but that’s a slightly different thing)

You need to lay out good paths

Your site needs to create good pathways from initial visit to eventual purchase. Not my wobbly studio path with its mud, but a simple path of exploration and discovery that makes becoming a customer into a natural next step.

To extend the metaphor, we’re looking for a confident step or jump into being a customer. You do not want your customer to come to a shuddering halt at the edge of a sudden steep drop.

What does that mean on the web?

Here my metaphor falls over. Websites don’t have physical paths. So what can a website owner do to make sure that prospective customers appreciate what they have to offer, and are able to become customers confidently?

There are two sides to this. On the one hand, you always have to offer something that people genuinely desire. On the other, you need to make that path smooth, removing the obstacles that exist to making a commitment online.

The details vary from one domain to another, but let’s consider this for some different types on online enterprise. As I run through, take a look at the domains that are outside your own experience, and consider whether there’s something you can apply to your own world.

Paths  for product sites

For someone selling a physical product online, the web design is fundamental to success. Above all, the site acts as a bright window display. Prospective customers need to be attracted to the product, through good deals, great photography, detailed specifications and motivating descriptions. They need to feel that they almost have it in their hands. And they need to trust the site, either as a known brand or through its guarantees.

If the site is unknown, the customer is constantly evaluating risk versus reward: it looks like a great deal, but: will the product really be that good? And if it all goes wrong will I get my money back (without a fight)?

Good product sites (even start-ups) minimise the sense of risk.

Paths for software providers

The developers of software products have also come up with a standard sort of approach. Their websites usually provide a simple explanation of the problem that the product solves, together with a list of features.

This is supported by demonstrations of the product in action – dramatisations, virtual tours, animations, FAQs – and case histories of happy, important users.

Software sites tackle typical questions that their buyers have: Will this do what I want? Is it easy to use? Will it work for me? Is it worth the investment? Do people that I admire use it?

Good software sites work hard to show the product in action, to make it really come alive for prospective buyers. And then they make it easy, by offering short software trials that allow users to test drive the product before making a decision.

Long and winding paths for online services

And so we come to online services. Here, I’m thinking of coaching, teaching, training, and e-learning. Experiential products, if you like.

These products are highly dependent on relationships (both real and imagined) between the coach and the customer, and they are frequently co-constructed.

What do I mean by that? Here’s an example. Perhaps you take an online class in making your old photos into a digital scrapbook (I haven’t yet, but I’ve considered it). You might sign up for the class because you adore the class leader and everything that she writes.

Your feelings about the class will relate to your own personal journey with the material, and the extent to which it engaged you and stretched you. In many ways, you become the product: the training merely facilitates the transformation.

If you took the class half-heartedly, or misunderstood its aims, or it wasn’t what you expected, you might end up feeling that you wasted your money. If it went well, you may be absolutely delighted.

A piece of successful coaching is almost a three-way fit: the right coach, the right customer, and the right process or plan to give the customer a successful outcome.

The business of choosing and committing to an online coach is likely to be drawn out over a period of time, compared with the simple product purchase. There are the same issues of risk, and trust, and money-back guarantees as with any other product, but it’s a deeply personal matching process.

How can online coaches improve the path for prospective buyers?

Here are three kinds of pre-purchase experience that help people to commit to these more experiential services. (And if this really isn’t what you sell, read on anyway: there’s a lot that you can take away and apply).

1. Create a relationship through your vivid presence

Lots of coaches blog – and the blog is really the heart of the imagined relationship that your prospective customer has with you. Your language, the things you talk about, the solutions you offer, your world view, your beliefs are all right there in your articles. It may just be a reading relationship, but it’s a relationship nonetheless.

Your style with your audience (and probably with your one-to-one customer) is right there on the page. It’s there in the way that you respond to comments or build community. If you don’t have comments, and yet you have lots of readers, I will bet that your writing style invites people into your world and resonates with their issues.

People read you, and they begin to feel at home in your space.

I could write a whole other piece on blog content, but for now just consider: what are you saying? What’s the conversation you are having? Is it trustworthy? Is it reliable? What sort of business does your writing represent?

Writing is of course very different to voice or face-to-face contact. It’s lovely, but it’s two- dimensional.

You need to come alive from the page.

But not in a spooky way.

If your service is live, then demonstrate your best live self, through audio, video, webinars and Q&A calls. Voice is wonderfully distinctive for many people. Video is fab, but it’s harder to do well.

So, maximise the experience of yourself, using the methods that are best for you.

2. Provide a safe virtual experience

The next best thing to trying something out for yourself is watching someone else try it. It’s not quite as good, but it’s safe and often very informative. As a customer, you can use these to fit yourself in the frame.

Examples of these include case histories, reviews, features and diaries. These are worthwhile if they’re authentic; unfortunately, increasingly they’re a little bit gamed. Third-party reviews can look good, but if they are all from your friends, that’s a little less useful.

The phrase ‘social proof’ is sometimes used here (show that you have hundreds of Facebook fans, for example), but I think it’s a bit misleading. The best proof is the uptake by people like you, or by people that you admire and identify with.

Case histories have the value of demonstrating the whole process to people, and that can be extremely helpful. It shows the breadth of your offering, not just a magic before and after.

3. Set up test drives and trials

Smaller versions of the real experience are extremely valuable.

These could be small services, free courses, sample chapters, e-books, taster sessions – just real but smaller embodiments of more expensive services. Small commitments that let people test out you and your process.

Packaged trials are less emotive – and probably less powerful – than live trials and tests (like free 20-minute coaching calls). Live test drives help people to decide if they have a fit with you, and they also build emotional bonds of trust and commitment.

But bear in mind that test drives tend to imply near-to-final commitment. You don’t usually take up the offer of a test drive unless you are already part-committed.

As I said earlier, if you don’t offer live trial, then audio and written samples can substitute. (Video is great, too, but it’s usually harder to pull off)

It’s all about finding a fit, helping the reader decide whether this feels like the right relationship for them, and whether you and your services will actually deliver the results that you claim.

The customer is balancing desire and risk, just as they do with physical products, but the stakes are usually higher. Virtual tours and safe trials help to eliminate the risks.

So, action.

How can you put this into practice for your own situation?

Take a look at your site, and check your answers to the following questions:

  • How safe is it for my customers to buy what I’m selling? (Why?)
  • Do I communicate the product/service really well, so that people get exactly what they expected, if not more?
  • Do I show people how it works in practice?
  • If I’m pretty much the product, am I building the positive case for choosing me, through the things that I say and write?
  • Do I give people the opportunity to try out my services, virtually and safely?
  • Do I minimise the jump on the path, so that it’s a hop (or a dive)?

Would love your thoughts, especially on any actions it suggests to you.  Do share, retweet, all of that good stuff.  I’m off to do some voice recording, try out some video and phone a landscaper.


Customer segments(Website to Wonderful will resume next week)

It’s hard when your face doesn’t fit.

Especially when you’re the eager customer.

I got an email recently from a clothes store that I love, with an invitation for customers to take part in a market research exercise at my nearest branch. I got terribly excited, but then I realised they were looking for people a lot younger than me to take part. That was a little bit sad-making. I loved the brand, but I really wasn’t a core customer to them. I even wrote a little note explaining my passion and begging to be let in, but nothing came of it. (Yes, I cared that much, even though I have been on the other side…).

I was genuinely miffed. When I go into their shops, I see women of all ages buying their clothes. And I know that shedloads of women like me go clothes shopping there. But I get the feeling that they’d rather not have customers like me feature all that prominently.

(Incidentally, I spoke to a couple of friends about this, and they said they’d got the same email and just lied their way in!)

Often, we are not the fantasy customers of businesses

We’re a bit wrong, really. We’re older, younger(Facebook, anyone?), fatter, or poorer. Less cool. More cool. OK, this was fashion, and fashion constantly presents an ideal of age, shape and beauty. But I see this mismatch in lots of other places too.

It can be difficult to design for real customers. I’m not talking about ‘right people’ either, which is a little bit different. I am talking about the people who are keen to use your services but aren’t quite the way you envisaged them.

Real customers are a bit of a nightmare, really.

Real customers are messy slobs who leave their clothes on the floor. Real customers do not have Inbox Zero (although they might have Inbox 1500). Real customers had their website designed by their favourite uncle who just taught himself Dreamweaver, and they can’t use another designer because he’ll get upset.

So much of the time, we back away. We design for ideal customers. We write content for people who aren’t customers. We might produce content that mostly appeals to people in the same industry, to our colleagues. We might create for a marketing cut-out person, like a stay-at-home mother aged between 25 and 40 in a very tidy house. Or we may work for a fantasy customer, who is actually a little bit wrong for what we have to offer.

I was thinking about this, because things are noticeably very different when you come across communication that genuinely, genuinely speaks to your situation. It’s different because it feels as though the writer has been in your shoes – they know what you care about, and they understand the gap between the smooth goodlooking exterior, and the internal wrangling that goes on behind the scenes. The difference is like coming home. It’s wonderful.

Being understood matters.

Why don’t we design for reality?

Well, sometimes we are in the business of selling a dream.

Deep down, though, I feel that we don’t get that far.  We are a little scared of getting to know our audiences too well, and the fact that our relationships are mediated by the internet, Twitter and Facebook often makes it easier to keep your distance. Analytic information (hits, bounces, pages viewed) provides data but limited information on what drove those people to click. We end up with our own ideas, which are often a little bit out of touch with raw, jagged reality.

I don’t have a neat ending to this, because I feel I’m still on my own journey of understanding the people that I work with. I do know that every live project, every consultation moves me closer to that. It’s still gradually evolving.

And if you’re reading this, I’d love to know more about you. If you happen to know your readers or customers extremely well, how did you manage that?

Obligatory advertising: I’ve just launched my Winter Strategy Sessions, which are pay-what-its-worth consulting session aimed at making your website a better place to be. Check out the page, and get in touch if you have any questions. I’m also doing a small number of Get It Done website offers, so if you know anyone who really and truly needs a small website fast, and wants to avoid their uncle, point them here.

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A beginner’s guide to feedback

July 5, 2011 Blog

I’m a huge fan of The Apprentice. (Don’t know if you get this outside the UK – reality TV show about would-be entrepreneurs, working on new money-making ‘tasks’ every week) The Apprentice is highly instructive on many levels, but I’m particularly enthralled by the candidates’ approach to customer research. Every week, the candidates will usually […]

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