The explosion of digital technologies over the past decade has created “empowered” consumers so expert in their use of tools and information that they can call the shots, hunting down what they want when they want it and getting it delivered to their doorsteps at a rock-bottom price. In response, retailers and service providers have scrambled to develop big data and analytics capabilities in order to understand their customers and wrest back control. For much of this time, companies have been reacting to customers, trying to anticipate their next moves and position themselves in shoppers’ paths as they navigate the decision journey from consideration to purchase.
Now, leveraging emerging technologies, processes, and organizational structures, companies are restoring the balance of power and creating new value for brands and buyers alike. Central to this shift is a fresh way of thinking: Rather than merely reacting to the journeys that consumers themselves devise, companies are shaping their paths, leading rather than following. Marketers are increasingly managing journeys as they would any product. Journeys are thus becoming central to the customer’s experience of a brand—and as important as the products themselves in providing competitive advantage.
Consider how one company, Oakland-based Sungevity, competes on its ability to shape the journey. At first glance, Sungevity looks like a typical residential solar panel provider. But closer inspection reveals that the company’s business is to manage the end-to-end process of sales and custom installation, coordinating the work of an ecosystem of companies that supply, finance, install, and service the panels. Sungevity’s “product” is a seamless, personalized digital customer journey, based on innovative management of data about the solar potential of each home or business. Sungevity makes the journey so compelling that once customers encounter it, many never even consider competitors.
One of us (David) experienced the Sungevity journey firsthand. The process began when he received a mailing with the message “Open this to find out how much the Edelman family can save on energy costs with solar panels.” The letter within contained a unique URL that led to a Google Earth image of David’s house with solar panels superimposed on the roof. The next click led to a page with custom calculations of energy savings, developed from Sungevity’s estimates of the family’s energy use, the roof angle, the presence of nearby trees, and the energy-generation potential of the 23 panels the company expected the roof to hold.
Another click connected David through his desktop to a live sales rep looking at the same pages David was. The rep expertly answered his questions and instantly sent him links to videos that explained the installation process and the economics of leasing versus buying. Two days later, Sungevity e-mailed David with the names and numbers of nearby homeowners who used its system and had agreed to serve as references. After checking these references, David returned to Sungevity’s site, where a single click connected him to a rep who knew precisely where he was on the journey and had a tailored lease ready for him. The rep e-mailed it and walked David through it, and then David e-signed. When he next visited the website, the landing page had changed to track the progress of the permitting and installation, with fresh alerts arriving as the process proceeded. Now, as a Sungevity customer, David receives regular reports on his panels’ energy generation and the resulting savings, along with tips on ways to conserve energy, based on his household’s characteristics.
Starting with its initial outreach and continuing to the installation and ongoing management of David’s panels, Sungevity customized and automated each step of the journey, making it so simple— and so compelling—for him to move from one step to the next that he never actively considered alternative providers. In essence, the company reconfigured the classic model of the consumer decision journey, immediately paring the consideration set to one brand, streamlining the evaluation phase, and delivering David directly into a “loyalty loop,” where he remains in a monogamous and open-ended engagement with the firm (see the exhibit “Streamlining the Decision Journey”). Sungevity’s journey strategy is working. Sales have doubled in the past year to more than $65 million, exceeding growth targets and making Sungevity the fastest-growing player in the residential solar business.