“People Buy From People”

People Buy From People
Female customer with cellular phone and shopping bags in the mall

“People buy from people.”

It’s a cliché. One of the many which flutters unbound throughout today’s business world. It’s also one that I found myself using at a seminar recently, and I kicked myself for doing so. Oddly, the people in the room didn’t see this act of mental self-abuse instead, they nodded sagely and muttered the words “True. True.” But when I began to talk about the ‘customer journey’ they started sniggering; apparently the words ‘customer journey’ hadn’t gone down so well. Business jargon, I was told. Means nothing. Consultant-speak.

Generally, I’m not a fan of cliché, I hate putting all my eggs in one basket and I’d rather shoot from the hip to the back of a much wider net. I like to think I’m a creative fellow, so dreaming up inventive ways to avoid cliché and sidestep business jargon is one of the ‘Top 10 Things Guaranteed to Keep Me Awake at Night’. So is ‘Making Top 10 Lists’ actually, but that’s another story.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, I might say that cliché has some value as an unsophisticated linguistic shortcut, transferring meaning and intent quickly without the need for long-winded exposition, but that only works if we’re all singing from the same hymn-sheet and no one moves the goalposts when our backs are turned. I mean… provided we all understand the context and that the cliché itself remains truthful.

It’s that last point which worries me, because we often find ourselves accepting the truths of such statements without consideration, and if we continue to believe in something which no longer holds true then maybe there are consequences for the business. A bit like sticking your head in the sand and believing in The Darkness while someone builds a car park around your butt.

Back to ‘People buy from people’, a cliché used in sales training a lot. Does it still hold true? Do people buy from people in the modern world of comparison websites, price-checking apps, virtual shopping assistants and ‘one-click add-to-cart buy-now buttons’ on Facebook?

Many of us would answer with a hearty “Yes of course! Our people are the difference between our sturdy humanistic values and the robot-controlled internet of evil” and until recently I’d have been inclined to agree with that.

However, recently we (that is, my wife and I) bought a new tumble dryer off the internet and my wife said it was one of the best buying experiences she’d ever had. “No one got in my way” she answered after I asked her what was so good about it.

Flashback: In the late Nineties a rep once told my wife she’d soon be buying everything online. “Not true,” I remember her blasting back at the rep. “I won’t trust my credit card details to a website. Plus, I want to see the thing I buy.”

Back in the room: The lack of ‘Trust’ in the internet was a barrier back then because in the 90s nobody trusted this new-fangled internet thing. But after so many years of being told that online security is much better than it was and the whole idea of buying online embedded into our culture, trust is rarely an issue these days for online retail.

People buy from people

‘Seeing the thing we want to buy’ – again, no longer a barrier. The site from which we bought our tumble dryer offered full-screen 360 degree images plus demonstration videos piped in from YouTube; customer videos, reviews, star ratings – you know the kind of thing. For me it was a blow to the whole ‘ people buy from people ’ idea because there were no people involved in the sale, and the price wasn’t an issue either because, by the time we’d finished selecting all the options, the price was no less than we would have paid for it in store.

It was just easy to buy from them.

Another cliché used in sales training says that “customers will always travel down the route of least resistance”, which is a lazy way of saying that if you make it difficult for customers to buy from you they’ll look for an easier option elsewhere. No retailer would say that they intentionally make it difficult for customers to buy, but I’ve met sellers slow to understand how their loyalties to archaic attitudes and ‘legacy’ processes, even the failure to adopt new ways of engaging consumers (writing ‘customer journey’ off as ‘consultant-speak’ for example), can invisibly yet forcefully nudge customers into alternative avenues to get what they want.

I think it’s significant that an ecommerce website designed around detailed consumer intelligence can now successfully replicate and refine the dynamics of the in-store sales process – by filtering needs, establishing trust, even building a rapport with customers through its use of friendly cartoon characters and warm fuzzy icons – and move customers from product selection through to payment in a seamless way which personalises the experience and inspires and rewards their loyalty at every opportunity. This website actually made the experience of buying a tumble dryer in some way pleasurable. And generally, if a thing is pleasurable, we’ll do it again.

Like it or not we are in ‘The Age of the Customer’ and the tail is now wagging the dog. The customer has more choice and more control over what, where and how they buy than ever before and the most successful businesses I get involved with are those which put the work into understanding their customer’s journey and then dovetailing their customer service and sales process into it.

Recognising how and why people buy, engaging them with your service and your brand at key stages of their buying journey, will give you some control back and will result in successful sales and customer loyalty. Sticking to a simplistic belief that ‘ people buy from people ’ will only end in tears.

For what it’s worth I do believe that ‘people will buy from people’, but I’d add to that the caveat ‘unless it’s easier for them not to’.

[cliché counter: how many did you spot?]