Provide for a Range of Confidence Levels
If your market research zeros in on the data, averaging out the numbers for your core female customers, you might miss the vast differences in your consumers' confidence levels. Be careful that you identify and develop a plan for serving all groups of customers on your industry-confidence spectrum. One group of your prospective female customers, for example, might be fluent in your industry's language and comfortable with the transactions involved; while another group might be just beginning to grasp the basics and feel a bit intimidated.
If you skew toward serving those at the confident end of the spectrum, you won't resonate with your tentative consumers. And, if you skew toward the tentative customers, you'll frustrate those who are much more familiar with your industry and know exactly what they want to do and how they want to purchase your product. Sounds like you can't win for losing, but never fear.
The best way to honor any particular customer's time and knowledge is to customize your delivery at several levels. When you do this, you can both carefully draw industry newcomers through the process, and still provide advanced materials and offers that your more industry-familiar women can utilize and benefit from.
If yours is an industry to which some groups of women will be new customers, you might plan to develop several confidence-building "touch points" to better serve them along the way. This might mean something as basic as the option of speaking with a human being, twenty-four hours a day if need be, to help them use the technology of your online store; or it might mean doing a follow-up phone call after an in-person meeting at your bank to make sure all of her questions about your product were fully answered . By incorporating human interaction and communication between your employees and your customers into the daily mix of your business, you can more easily take the pulse of your targeted market subsegments, while monitoring your customers' learning processes as a whole. Then, you can be more responsive to your customers' changing needs and expectations, regularly tweaking your sales and marketing process in real time.
No matter what, women of all confidence levels will appreciate the options you provide to help them learn more about your product or industry, or so they can just shop with ease on your Web site.
Guidelines for High Learning Curves
The products or services with high learning curves should be pretty easy to recognize, because they require a significant amount of information to consider prior to making a purchase. Yet, there are some industries that may seem as though they'd be hard to learn at first glance, but because they've been in the consumer business for so long, the buying process involved has become second nature to most customers.
Making decisions about your investments for your children's college years may have a high learning curve, for example. But buying deodorant should be fairly simple (but it may have been an odd thing for consumers to think about way back when it first became available). And, buying a new water heater may involve some depth of self-education for the female consumer, while most adult women have likely long since studied up on how to buy a car. It just varies from industry to industry.
Whether a woman approaches your brand as a first-time buyer in your category or as an experienced purchasing agent, she will be looking for different needs to be met. On the front end of that spectrum is someone who may be more tentative in her exploration.
A tentative tester's process may begin with outreach to friends ” "Have you purchased a lawn mower before? What do I need to think about?" ”and then turn to Internet research. The information-gathering woman may then return to pose questions to her friends from a more educated angle, as in: "I'm weighing the electric versus gas- powered mower question from the environmental angle. What have you found?" Once she's gathered that much information, she'll likely head back to the Internet to compare features, benefits, prices and retail outlets.
If your brand has stayed in touch with customers all along, it should be on the tentative woman's radar right from the start of her prepurchase process. For example, the friends of a "newbie" may have long since been purchasing your brand, or your brand may have developed a reputation for using conversational (not industry lingo) search keywords on its retail site. (After all, "apparel" isn't the first thing on our minds when we hit our favorite online shops , but "clothes" certainly are.) Your site should present easy-entry learning options for a new consumer, long before she ever approaches the finality of a shopping cart. Remember, there is a difference between making something simple and making it clear. Tentative customers new to your industry may not necessarily need material dumbed-down for them.
If a woman's friends aren't already suggesting your brand during her first round of exploration, you do need to ensure that it comes into a woman's view at the Internet and search engine stage.
Study the natural progression in the decision making of your tentative, testing, soon-to-be-purchasing female consumers and use that knowledge to be right where you need to be when they are ready for it. Is your brand listed very close to the top of search engine results when a woman types in your product name or type? For example, is your brand of natural estrogen a name that is top of mind for a woman's naturopath, so it will get mentioned during the course of her decision making about a menopause supplement? Accessibility to your brand (is your URL easy to recall?) and perfect timing (when her first child was born did your bank send information about starting a college fund?) will be the jump start for furthering your brand's awareness among women.
On the other end of the tentative-confident spectrum are those who are likely to have been early adopters of your technology, or for some other reason just dove right in to your high-learning-curve industry. If you assume the lowest common denominator for these savvy buyers , the ways you deliver your product or service may be too agonizingly slow or time consuming for their quick thinking and acting. So, in the same way you deliver more thorough options for tentative consumers, you should present your more confident consumers with HOV lanes to guide them speedily through their buying processes.
Confident women consumers will be further along in their education process. They will already have spoken with friends, done the research, spoken with friends again, read comparisons and possibly interviewed or tested a few of your competitors . They have already accumulated the learning or the tools to make the decision and are looking for the company that will most resonate with them and efficiently serve them.
So, while it should be easier to serve them, it will also be more likely that you'll frustrate these confident shoppers. For example, there's nothing like a long form to complete prior to using the shopping cart to make a savvy customer lose patience and head to your competition.
Our advice is to ease their way. Remove the speed bumps and widen the access roads for this group of confident women. They are ready to be strategic and efficient about their purchase. The natural progression along their decision-making path needs to be served , just as with the tentative group, but in this case your brand needs to provide ways to skip over the basics. For example, by offering a "quick buy" link on your site for regular shoppers who've long since given you their profile information, you've catered to those technology- and Internet-confident customers (and we thank you).
TIPS TO REACH BOTH ENDS OF THE CONFIDENCE SPECTRUM
The following tips will help you focus your marketing messages and product information on both tentative and confident buyers, with easy entry points for all:
Ask her where she is in the process. Train your sales and customer service staff to ask female customers where they are in their buying processes; and, then respond accordingly .
If a woman says she is just looking, your staff should find out what information she needs and provide it by e-mail or, if she prefers, a phone call later in the day. If a woman says she is ready to buy, your staff should trust that she is (and not pester her with further questions) and make the transaction ultrasmooth and efficient from that point on.
Provide a range of education. Offer a selection of educational materials to help customers progress through the basic information stage and onto more advanced topics.
Teach related skills. Offer resources (online worksheets, seminars , brochures and one-on-one instruction) that will educate interested consumers about your industry and on making wise purchases within it. Be the source for the insider secrets and information that develop a tentative shopper into a more sophisticated consumer. For example, a nursery could offer topical classes for both "New Gardeners" and "Master Gardeners."
Map key information points. Consider what key information customers need prior to making a purchase decision. Explore how your educational materials, sales presentations and other resources support this natural learning and deciding progression.
Expand online options. Web sites, e-mail campaigns and other online tools should be fully developed to accommodate and equip both industry-tentative and industry-confident women. For example, a Web site can provide low-tech (phone) and high-tech (realtime chat) online customer service options to serve women at both ends of the technology spectrum. For e-mail, tending to low and high confidence levels might mean something as simple as making sure you deliver text e-mail messages as well as HTML.
One of us (Andrea) interviewed Yvonne Kidd, editor and publisher of the very inspiring site, Skilikeawoman.com, and Sue Greene, ski instructor and women's program head at Keystone Resort, to learn from their years of experience in the snow sport industry. Their thoughts, along with my interpretation (in parentheses) of how they might be applied to other industries, are as follows :
When women become moms, their fear factor increases because they can't afford to get hurt, and, in general, they fall off the snow sport radar when they hit their "family formation" years. (How do the "mom" emotions change and affect women's perception of your product or service? How do you attract them again, once their kids get a little older?)
Females clearly need different teaching techniques than men. Keystone's research found that "gaining confidence and reducing fear" and "improving style" were important reasons for women to take lessons. (How women want to learn about your products or services may differ greatly from the way men would go about it, too).
There are a lot more single-parent households these days and snow sports are too expensive for them. (How can your product or service keep from being dropped off the "to-buy" list when a household's financial situation changes?)
Women trust role models and instructors with whom they can identify and relate. Women will be more likely to trust a female ski instructor who has learned to master the mogul fields than a young male coach, for example. (Women need to be able to identify themselves within your marketing efforts and customer experience, or they'll think less of your brand for its lack of understanding.)
Encourage women in your industry to serve as teachers , role models, presenters, key customer service representatives and the like. (Just as female snow sport customers appreciate female instructors, so will your women's market notice whether your management, advisory board, sales and customer service staff reflect female involvement, and, it may well affect their purchasing behavior.)
The best way to feed these varying confidence or comfort levels within your consumer markets is to provide options that most any customer could utilize. As we have seen, that might mean customizing your delivery at several levels to draw newcomers through the process carefully , all the while honoring the savvy customer's time and knowledge with quick information and purchasing tools. Some companies do this by offering a free membership that will automatically deliver the customer to an advanced area of the site, thus skipping any of the introductory information.
However, you've got to remember that your women's market is constantly evolving and learning, so don't figure that once you've done one study of their confidence levels you can call it quits. It will be important to check in regularly to see how your customers have progressed and then redevelop your approach and the technology that serves them.
If you keep the prepurchase learning environment comfortable and supportive of all levels of industry confidence, your female customers will remember, spread the word among their friends and be converted into regular customers.
The reward is that most women, once they've learned the basics of any new industry and have had their interests piqued, will speed to a full and sophisticated understanding of the topic. And, those women make great customers!
 Reprinted with permission of ReachWomen, LLC, Reaching Women newsletter, Volume II, Issue X, 2003, http://www.reachwomen.com.