Customers are creatures of habit, choosing some products or services without really thinking. On the one hand, this predictability can help a business plan their campaigns. For example, if the owner of a grocery store knows that placing displays to the left of the entrance always results in a sale, the practice is likely to continue.
But a business can also become a victim of that success, reluctant to experiment with new ways of altering the shopping experience to expose customers to new products or services. While some consumers might be frustrated by the disruption of their routine, changing customer habits often leads to unexpected—even increased—sales and loyalty.
Observe your customers first
Because a business lives with its key marketing pieces all the time—such as their message, packaging, and website—they tend to get bored with them faster than their customers, who interact with them much less frequently. Before making any changes, it's important to look at your marketing the way your customer sees it.
"Rather than making changes simply for the sake of feeling like you've done something fresh, make sure that you are creating changes that will allow those customers who are in the habit of using you to continue that habit," says Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, and author of Smart Thinking.
Surveys and focus groups are not accurate indicators of customer habits, Markman says. Instead, seeing first-hand how customers react with your products and services can help you figure out how to introduce new routines.
"If people have to come in and sit in your lobby for awhile, what are they doing there? What are some things you could do to make the experience more pleasant, but also make it one that binds people more closely to your company?" Markman says. "If you can watch people in your environment, you can learn a lot about your own business."
Customers are also affected by what they see. Getting your company in front of them—for example, sending a notepad or calendar embossed with your messaging to their home or office—can subtly change habits by keeping you top of mind. Small businesses that sponsor local community events have a huge advantage over large companies that typically avoid this kind of grass roots marketing. "If you can get your product or service in people's environments, you can create a consistency between the environment and the behavior, and that's the recipe for building habit," Markman says.
"Your overriding goal is to find ways to get your customers to do something," Markman adds. "The more that people act, the more you're giving them an opportunity to learn about your company and learn new habits."
Knowing how your customers find you can help you make informed decisions about ways to nurture new habits.
Let's say you run a dry cleaning business, and you discover that most people use their smart phones to search for your type of service. Instead of advertising solely in your local community paper, it would be wise to make sure that your presence on the web is optimized for mobile devices so that your company name will appear in the search results.
"By understanding the process by which people find new service providers, you would put more emphasis on [that process]," says Joel Rubinson, president of New York-based Rubinson Partners, Inc., a marketing and research consultancy. "Or just ask your customers how they found you in a personal, friendly way."
Giving your customers an amazing experience that makes a deep impression can lead to a dramatic shift in their habits. "Do something that is so surprisingly great that the customer really takes note," Rubinson explains. "Some gift that brightens their day—perhaps some special kind of service—or some personalization that gives unexpected delight."
Even the most loyal customers may not be aware of the full range range of products or services that a business offers. Content marketing, where genuinely valuable information is supplied to the customer, is one way to lay the groundwork for future purchasing choices, as Rubinson himself learned firsthand.
"I have heating oil and my oil provider also provides services regarding central air conditioning," Rubinson says. "Instead of sending me a coupon with a bill, they can teach me something about how to maintain my central air so that it works better or is more efficient. By teaching me these things, I will start to think of them as an expert and perhaps call them first when the need arises."
Look at your own habits
Sometimes changes in the lives of your customers—such as a new job, a birth, or a child going away to school—can be prime opportunities to work at changing their habits. "Encouraging customers to form new habits is easiest when their existing purchase habits are disrupted by a recent move or shift in their life circumstances," says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California.
The habits of customers are not the only things worth studying and influencing. Businesses, too, have habits that should be looked at for possible improvement.
Wood explains that every organization needs best practices and routines that maximize efficiency and contribute constructively to the bottom line. But careless or wasteful habits should be rooted out and changed. "This is the trick with habit change," she says. "How to routinize the parts of the organization that need to work efficiently, but still keep innovations going."
On the Toyota assembly line, for example, Wood says that "even the folks carrying out work efficiently are disrupted so that Toyota can identify points of weakness and understand how to change procedures to make them work better."
As anyone who has ever made a resolution at New Year's knows, changing habits is never easy. But when accepted as a challenge, it can open up new revenue streams and reinforce customer loyalty.