Marketing is essentially an exercise in the behavioral psychology of potential buyers. When making a decision to buy a product or service, the buyer goes through several very distinct phases in the decision-making process. While these phases may be expanded or compressed based on the urgency of the need, they present a standard flow in how this process occurs.

Phase 1: Identifying a Need

Based on a deficiency, a desire for greater efficiency, a need to save money or just a basic desire for a product, a consumer first identifies they have a need for a particular product or service. If your product or service doesn’t fill an immediate basic need like food or shelter, the initial marketing touch points need to highlight (or create) this need or perceived need to help the consumer realize that they really do need your product or service.

For example, a consumer can buy a lawnmower any day of the week from their local hardware store, but if the hardware store down the street offer a 30 percent discount on lawnmowers this Saturday, they are creating an artificial need for the consumer to save money buying it this Saturday. Creating urgency is one way to create the need that your product is intended to fill. Needs exist on an emotional level, and it is necessary to understand the need on that level in order to know how to speak to it.

Phase 2: Researching Options

Decision Points in the Buyer's Journey

Now that a consumer knows they have a need, they enter the next phase of exploring options. In today’s digital world, this usually means they will comparison shop for products or services online before ever stepping foot in a store or making a phone call to a potential service provider. Tweaking web pages to make sure your product or service offers a competitive price and is available now will help when the customer is in this phase of comparison shopping. Since most of search is now mobile, it is also vital that your product pages are mobile-friendly.

Taking the lawnmower example, a consumer already may know they want a top brand model. Before they visit the hardware store that has it on sale this Saturday, they may see that an online retailer offers the exact same model for an even bigger discount and includes some bonus attachments. To test this for your own product or service, play the role of a consumer and comparison shop your own products and services. You may find that you are drastically overpriced compared to your competitors. And in today’s world, those competitors may or may not be in a brick-and-mortar building down the street.

Phase 3: Weighing Options

Now that a consumer has their comparison shopping data in hand, they will weigh the different options. In this phase, they may visit a local store to take the product or service for a test in person. If they have come to your store, you need to be aware that they may not be there to buy right that moment but be in the middle of a comparison shopping exercise.

What can you offer them to help make the decision while they are in person with the product or service they want to buy? It may be tempting to employ pressure sales tactics to close the sale before the customer leaves, but be careful! If the buyer has a negative experience, it will cause major problems later in the process. However, there are appropriate ways to create urgency and incentivize the sale.

Some retailers offer price matching on their products and services, so consumers can feel confident in making an immediate purchase decision without finding out afterwards that they could have had a better deal down the street. If you offer this price match guarantee, advertise if around your store and online by tweaking web pages to ensure it is visible with a stand out button or banner.

Phase 4: Finalizing the Decision

Decision Points in the Buyer's Journey

Once all options have been weighed, a consumer is ready to make a purchase decision. While this may feel like the process is finally over, it isn’t. Many companies fumble the ball right here on the last yard line. Ensuring the buying process goes as smoothly as possible will help create a good feeling within the consumer and make them feel like they have made a good decision going with your product or service.

For example, service professionals may have given excellent service throughout a dining experience. The customer may be ready to leave a big tip for them, but for some reason, the check takes too long to be delivered or the payment processing doesn’t go smoothly. How these service failures are handled or mitigated leaves a lasting impression with the consumer as well. All the work your went through to secure the customer and sway him or her to your product or service could go out the window in the final stages.

To mitigate this risk, pretend to be a customer. Either hire mystery shoppers who can report back the experience to you or be a customer yourself to see what it’s actually like to make a purchase.

Phase 5: Ongoing Relationship Management

Decision Points in the Buyer's Journey

After the sale, companies have an ideal window to ask customers for referrals or offer a bounce back coupon or offer. Repeat-marketing or relationship marketing is one of the lowest-cost, highest-yield method for driving sales. While the customer is basking in their purchase, capitalize on those good feelings and offer a related product or service that might enhance what they already bought or send a coupon or referral code within a few hours of the sale completion.

Understanding the different decision points in a buyer’s journey can help you target your marketing efforts and build a strong strategy for attracting potential customers and keeping them in your sales cycle versus that of your competition.