In over 7,500 focus groups, spanning more than 35 years, I have learned that marketing success is determined more by the time it takes your customers to decide on your product than by any other combination of factors. Decision acceleration is more powerful than positioning, image, value, customer satisfaction, or guarantees. It is even more powerful—in many cases—than product superiority! In this article, I’ll show you why this is so and how you can take advantage of it.
Why Your Product’s Success Is
Determined By Decision Speed
Decision speed is the time it takes your customers to go from initial awareness to enthusiastic use and recommendation of your product or service. This in turn is governed by the simplicity, ease, and sometimes the fun of the decision process. The company that makes its products simple, easy, and fun to decide on will acquire customers faster and increase market share much faster than might be obvious. In fact, it’s the key to dominating markets.
Accelerated decisions are in a different class from other marketing program adjustments. While most marketing changes—at best—provide incremental market share increases, faster decision cycles can improve market share by orders of magnitude.
Decision Time Can Be Cut in Half
How? Choosing a product is not a single decision, it’s a series of decisions, often an extended series. Some choices along the way can be fast and easy to make, but many require time and effort in gathering and verifying information, weighing options, testing and evaluating results, and persuading others. The process of deciding is slowed by each of these time-consuming bottlenecks.
If you can identify and minimize just a few of those decision bottlenecks for your customers, you can reduce their decision time by half or more and multiply the sales and market share of your product or service. I’ve seen it happen again and again for products and services of every description, whether the decision cycle for the product was a year, six months, six weeks, or six minutes. The example below shows how it works:
Surprising Market Share Shifts
When Decisions Are Faster
Suppose there are five similar products competing in a new category. All things being equal, they will each eventually capture a 20% market share. Say the full decision cycle time for these products is about one year.
Now suppose you are competitor #1, and you find a way to make several of the more time-consuming steps in that decision cycle easier for your prospects, cutting the decision time in half. What happens to the market share for you and the other competitors?
Obviously, your product will achieve its expected one-year market share in six months, and, having effectively doubled the market window of opportunity, you will have the time and resources to capture another, similar market share in the remaining six months. This would give your product almost a 40% share at year’s end, with the four other competitors sharing the remainder, at a little more than 15% each.
But even that triumph is not the whole story. It leaves out the powerful effect of word-of-mouth and assumes each prospect makes a solitary decision. When you increase the decision speed for your prospects by 100%, you not only get customers sooner, you turn those customers into zealous advocates for your product before the competitors have a similar opportunity. Why would your user endorsements be any better than those from competitors? First because they are available sooner, but second, and more importantly, your endorsements will be supported by the targeted, persuasive information you selected and provided to shorten the decision cycle in the first place!
With this kind of decision support, the first marketing months can generate such evangelism among early adopters that a 40% market share would be too conservative a goal. A more likely outcome would be a 60%–80% market share for your product, a 10% share for product #2, with the others splitting the remainder.
Shortening the Decision Cycle
It turns out that the decision cycle can be dramatically shortened. The methods are well known. Here are some of the things that shorten decision cycles:
- Benefits obvious and compelling
- Information clear and balanced
- Product clearly differentiated
- Trial made easy
- Evaluations clarified and simple
- Guarantees ironclad and generous
- Testimonials and other word-of-mouth believable
- Delivery, training, and product support superior
What Really Makes a Product ''Best'?
When competing products are similar, the faster-decision product is ‘best.’ A marketer who provides full, balanced information about his product, including clear product comparisons, who guides customers through all the stages of the decision process, is enhancing the value of his product, and giving himself an important competitive advantage. It becomes the product with a decision that’s “clear sailing.” The so-called “best” product is the one that most completely fulfills the prospect’s needs, including the prospect’s decision needs.
Benefits Are Not Enough
You can’t accelerate decisions very much with standard marketing methods. The world is filled with marketers trying to sell their products by telling us over and over about features and benefits, all competing to get us to choose their product now. But we don’t respond very well. Benefits are only one piece in a complex series of information requirements.
How to Make the Decision So Easy
That Your Customers Can’t Refuse
Once upon a time, a father went shopping for a pony to buy for his daughter. After looking at dozens of little horses, the man narrowed his choice down to two ponies. They seemed identical in every respect. Even the prices were identical.
Unable to make up his mind, he decided to take a second look at both ponies. The first farmer, eager to make the sale, talked on and on about how gentle, how smart, and how cute his pony was. The father thanked him and went on his way.
The second farmer’s approach was completely different. Instead of bragging about his product, he simply said, “Look mister—I’m so sure your little girl is going to love this pony, here’s what I'll do: Give me a check, and I’ll hold it for 30 days. I’ll bring the pony, a bridle and saddle, and 30 days’ worth of hay to your house. If your daughter decides to keep the pony, let me know at the end of the month, and I’ll cash the check. Otherwise, I’ll give you back your check, pick up the pony, and even clean up where he’s been.”
Who made the sale, the one who re-emphasized the benefits or the one who made the decision easier by making the purchase easy, made the delivery easy, gave extra support (the delivery, bridle, saddle, and hay), and made the purchase risk free?
If each had a hundred horses to sell, who would dominate the market? Who would sell all hundred horses and then buy out his competitor? Who would have the Justice Department breathing down his neck for monopolizing the horse business? That’s how Bill Gates would sell ponies, except he would put in a free product support line!
Shifting Your Perspective
The second farmer not only asked, “How can I sell my product?,” he asked, “How can my prospects get all the information and support—in the form and sequence they need—to choose my product quickly and confidently?”
What Slows the Process
The decision process is inherently fast. Once verified information is in place, the decision to act is almost immediate. It’s the information gathering and verifying that takes time. Remember a product decision you have made as a customer, one that took some time. In hindsight, you’ll see a decision path that could have been faster. If you knew then what you know now about that product, you would have reduced the decision time. As the customer, you could have been receiving the product’s benefits much, much sooner.
You, the marketer, are the best single source to help prospects look down a clear path for the information they need to make fast, confident decisions. After a product has been on the market a year, you can always look back and see how you could have done better. The trick is to learn this before you launch the product.
How to Speed It Up
Supplying information isn’t enough. Each stage of the decision process calls for different kinds of information, in different forms, in the right sequence.
Even if you are doing all the right things, if they are not in just the right sequence, they will fall on deaf ears.
It’s only when you have knowledge of the following:
The Steps in the Decision Process
Here are the stages of the decision process from the customer’s viewpoint:
- Satisfaction with the status quo [“Not in the market for...”]
- Interest in the product category [Browsing]
- Actively searching for options. [Shopping]
- Studying information [Shopping, cont’d.]
- Weighing options [Choosing]
- Testing the product [Trying]
- Committing & informing others [Pre-buying]
- Buying and learning to use the product [Learning]
- Expanding to greater usage while recommending the product to others [Evangelism]
The Key to Speeding Up Things Is to Find the
Bottlenecks at Each Stage of the Decision Speedway
I’ve found the 32 most serious delays on the decision road and have incorporated them into a worksheet to help my clients develop specific materials or delivery systems to minimize or remove them.
You can use this to zero in on your areas of opportunity. I’ve had lots of situations where accelerating a single area more than doubled product sales.
32 Major Bottlenecks in the Decision Process
| Decision Stage || Bottleneck from the customer’s point of view || Bottleneck? |
- I haven’t heard of your product.
- I don’t see the benefits.
- The benefits aren’t relevant to me.
- The benefits, even if true, are insignificant.
- It’s too good to be true.
| Interest in Product Category (“Deciding to Decide”) || |
- The decision process is too much trouble.
- I don’t have the time to decide.
- I don’t have the knowledge to decide.
- Yeah, I’ll try it [prematurely]
- I have to look around to find out what other products I should be considering.
- I can’t find any alternatives, but I know they must be out there.
- I can’t get the information I need, easily.
- I don’t understand the info. It’s overwhelming, confusing.
- I need proof that claims are true.
- I need proof that it will work in my hands.
- I don’t have enough information to seriously weigh my options.
- Too many options,
- I’m eliminating your product from the first cut.
- I’m not sure how to decide between my options.
- I don’t know which criteria are important and which ones aren’t.
- Your product looks good; I’ll buy. [premature]
- I have to test your product.
- It’s too difficult, time consuming, or expensive to test.
- The test is likely to be inconclusive. E.g., I can’t afford a large-scale test; anything smaller will be inconclusive.
- I don’t know how to evaluate my test.
- I don’t know if I can generalize from my positive results.
Committing andInforming Others
- I’m not sure if I should commit to wider usage.
- I’m not sure when and how to use it.
- I need to wait until I feel comfortable.
- I need to convince my boss and colleagues.
- I need to figure out how to implement this product on a wider scale.
- I’ve had some negative experiences and don’t know what to make of them.
- I’m a satisfied customer. How else should I use the product?
- I didn’t know you offered that.
- Who else should I be talking to?
For instance, you might find a way to shorten the time from initial awareness to first inquiry, from first inquiry to initial trial, from trial to implementation, or from first full-scale use to willingness to serve as a word-of-mouth referral. Sometimes you’ll find it’s something you have to add; other times, surprisingly, it’s something you’ll want to delete or re-sequence.
Where Marketers Often Inadvertently
Cause Decision Bottlenecks
Not only do marketers miss opportunities to eliminate bottlenecks, they often cause them. Poor or misleading marketing materials or campaigns can put worse barriers in the decision path than no information at all. This can occur at any of these places:
- lead gathering
- positioning, value proposition
- sales literature
- product information
- sales calls
- lead follow-up & inquiry handling
- delivery time
- customer service
- trial/demo/sampling/testing system
- word-of-mouth efforts
- customer support
- customer & internal training
- customer follow-up
Five Ways to Remove Decision Bottlenecks
Once you have identified the specific barriers slowing your prospects in their decision process, you will need detailed information about each barrier in order to remove it. Here are five key steps:
1) Listen to your best customers and salespeople. Knowing your product is not the same thing as knowing what information is required to make people want it. Find out what approach and criteria your customers used in the decision process, what they were looking for, what got them interested, what product features you thought were trivial that they thought were important, what were their qualms and what finally put them to rest, what materials were useful, how they compared the alternatives, how they tested or tried, etc. You especially want to discover what confused, annoyed, or frustrated them. Concentrate on resistance due to your leaving out some required process or step ... in other words, what slowed down their decision process.
2) Relate the “slowdowns” to the decision stages. By discovering what decision stage your good customers were in when they got confused, annoyed, frustrated, or otherwise slowed down, you can provide the right information in the right form to the new prospects in the right sequence.
The sequence and form of the information are often more important than content.
Take form, for example: company-sponsored benefit statements that exactly reflect the prospects’ needs or desires work fine in early decision stages, but later on, that same information is almost worthless unless it comes in the form of verification by third-party evidence or is otherwise supported.
Sequence is often more important than anything. Information that is crucial at certain decision stages won’t help at all in others:
- You can’t ask people to tell their friends before they are ecstatic about your product.
- They won’t be ecstatic before you’ve given them ways to personally verify
that it exceeds their expectations.
- They won’t know that it exceeds their expectations before you’ve provided
support for them to expand their use.
- You can’t expect them to expand their use beyond trial until you’ve trained
them to have proficiency with and have confidence in your support.
- They won’t have confidence before you’ve given them just the right trial
with just the right risk reduction or guarantee.
- They won’t try before you’ve given them clear criteria with which to evaluate.
- They won't have clear criteria before they’ve studied the simple
and relevant material that you have provided.
- You can’t expect them to go through informational material before they
are excited about your claims, unique selling proposition, and other clear
statements of benefit.
- They won’t even listen to your claims unless you know what frequency
their radar is tuned to and adjust your headlines and other attention-getting materials accordingly.
3) Manage their qualms. Customers have qualms: worries, concerns, unanswered questions, misconceptions, justified and unjustified negative reactions, and fears. Many of these are either unconscious or unexpressed. You must actively root them out and deal with them by: undercutting them so that they are ruled out before they can surface, answering them when they do surface, turning them into benefits, or acknowledging them and putting them into perspective. The one thing that is guaranteed to slow down the decision process and cause people to drop out is the one most used by marketers: ignoring qualms, not bringing them up, making believe that they don’t exist. Simply stated, if your prospects don’t find out about your negatives from you, they will find out from your competitors.
4) Verify that you’re dealing with the right roadblock, and then be crystal clear. Sometimes one form of research—surveys for example—will tell you where a roadblock is, but not what it is. For example, if you discover people aren’t testing your product, you might suspect your materials aren’t making the benefits clear. Look carefully. Maybe your initial materials are OK, but you need to give them an easier trial method, or a clearer way to interpret the results, or some educational material that will help them more fully appreciate what you have to offer.
5) Build a decision-acceleration campaign. Concentrating on the major decision bottlenecks first, map out a campaign of materials, events, and delivery systems that will help your prospects through every difficult decision stage.
With this focused approach, often you will be able to make use of unconventional, inexpensive, and simple options to accelerate many of the decision steps. For instance: Unique value statements, newsletter reprints, speaking opportunities, testimonial sheets, customer seminars, shared promotions with related product campaigns, word-of-mouth incentives, etc. can play a role in blasting through the bottlenecks and small hurdles that are holding back your product. These can be relatively inexpensive and can often be paid for out of the money saved from programs that are addressing less important parts of the decision process.
Pass it on! That’s the power of word-of-mouth marketing!