Every purchasing decision happens in stages. Some things like buying food may have fewer stages, or less defined ones, but others – like buying software – often have more stages and ones that are more defined.
That process is called the customer lifecycle. It’s the collection of stages a customer goes through from the very beginning of finding your product, through – hopefully – becoming a fan and advocate for you.
In this article we cover what the customer lifecycle is, what the different stages are and areas where there may be gaps and how you can address them.
What is the customer lifecycle?
The customer lifecycle is the different stages customers go through as their relationship with your product and business grows. There are generally six stages of the customer lifecycle (more on those below). Each stage generally coincides with an action the customer takes.
You can kind of think of the customer lifecycle like a video game. People move through different stages. Sometimes they go through in a linear fashion. However, other times they have to restart or go back a level prior to moving forward.
What are the stages of the customer lifecycle?
Below are the six stages of the customer lifecycle. We’ll cover what each stage is, as well as give some suggestions on how to best optimize each stage to both help customers continue in their journey.
Before someone can buy from you, or interact with your business on any level they need to first know that you exist. There are a lot of different tactics a company may use to try and improve overall awareness and grab the attention of potential customers:
Since most of the awareness tactics have to do with some type of advertising, this stage of the lifecycle is classically owned by marketing. For pragmatic reasons it makes sense for marketing to lead the charge, but it is important that other teams are aware of what they’re doing.
For example, if the marketing team is running a special discount as part of an awareness campaign and your sales team isn’t aware they might quote a different price than what the customer is expecting. Or, if your support team isn’t aware someone might email in asking about the discount and they could return the wrong information.
In both the above cases it makes for a worse customer experience, as well as needlessly complicates other team members' jobs. The best way to combat these instances is to have a shared space for employees where teams can inform and learn about different campaigns and promotions you’re planning.
Give the specifics, and also let them know how long the program is running and who it’s targeted at. That way no one will be caught off guard and the customer’s experience will be seamless across the initial stages.
Once a potential customer is aware of your company, product, or services, they may then move into the consideration phase of the customer lifecycle. As the name suggests, this is the point where the potential customer is looking at your offering and seeing if there could be a fit for their needs. They may also be comparing you against other options.
The two teams generally responsible for this stage are marketing and sales. Marketing would create content to try and help make the choice easier for the potential customer to make. It’s also possible at this point the potential customer would’ve reached out to someone on your sales team to get more information, or set up a demo of your product.
In this phase it’s important that marketing make the other teams aware of assets available to share with leads to help move them along in the buying cycle. Similarly, it’s helpful for your sales team to mark where a lead is at in the buying cycle so your customer-facing teams have more context if they end up interacting with them.
The most common way to do that is through a customer relationship management (CRM) tool. If you don’t use a CRM, you could use a shared spreadsheet to list leads and their statuses. However, that’s really only an option if you have a low volume.
The purchase phase of the customer lifecycle is when the customer is actively buying a product of service from you. Depending on how your services are structured, it’s possible there’s a self-serve option where the customer can make the purchase on their own.
In cases where you sell something more complex, or to larger clients, the customer most likely goes through a sales rep to make the purchase. In either case, the purchasing phase is generally owned by the sales team. However, marketing and customer success teams still may help support the sale, so it’s important that they’re involved.
For example, if there’s a client asking some more technical questions the sales staff aren’t able to answer, you could do a warm hand-off to someone on your customer support, or success, team to give them additional context and help get the purchasing customer the answers they need more efficiently.
To make the process even simpler, consider using a knowledge base to store all your support information in one easy-to-access place.
You could also reach out to your marketing team to help you create content resources such as blog posts, battle cards, or customer stories.
By utilizing those other team’s areas of expertise you can make the purchasing process go that much smoother for customers.
The onboarding phase of the customer lifecycle is when the customer is actively learning how to use your product. This stage has typically been handled by customer success teams, or by a dedicated account manager.
To make the process as smooth as possible, it helps if there’s a handover from the sales team, as onboarding generally comes right after the purchase is made. Setting up some sort of standardized handover doc can help make the process simpler for everyone involved. Creating the doc should be a collaborative effort between teams.
With a handover document the receiving team can have more information about features the customer is most interested in, or even what aspects of the product they’re already familiar with. By having those pieces of information they can make the most of their onboarding experience and make sure to get to the highest impact areas quicker.
It could even be a good idea to share the handover document with someone on your marketing team as they might be aware of other content to share to further bolster their onboarding.
Having additional resources for self-directed learning however, can be an even better option. Offering the customer the chance to self-educate empowers them to learn on their preferred schedule. A customer community is the perfect space to enhance the onboarding set up, you can host educational series, customer networking opportunities, and interactive content all in one place.
This webinar Applying Customer Success Strategies to a Customer Community is an excellent exploration of how customer success teams can utilize a customer community to build better onboarding experiences.
The retention phase of the customer lifecycle is when someone has been a customer for some amount of time and there’s either a renewal event coming up – a contract term expiring etc. – or when they’re possibly going to churn.
Depending on your company structure, it’s common for customer support and success teams to be tasked with customer retention. Since they generally have the most interaction with a customer post-sale, it tends to be the most natural fit. However, they can benefit from the support of other teams.
For example, if a customer is up for renewal it can be helpful to talk with the salesperson who helped them out initially. They may be able to clue you in on the main reasons they joined in the first place. They could also offer support for how they handle some common objections.
The advocacy stage is where a customer is now a fan and they’re helping spread the word about your product. Sometimes this is self-directed and people simply share on your behalf, but most of the time it comes from you asking for things like a customer story or testimonial.
Marketing teams usually are responsible for getting those stories live and shareable. However, since they’re not a customer-facing team, it’s not always easy for them to find these opportunities. That’s where having support from customer success and sales teams becomes very useful.
They have direct interaction with customers, and probably have a better idea of how people are using your product, as well as who are your biggest fans. Customer success or sales teams can use a customer community to identify and connect with customers who’d be a good fit for these types of stories and content.
Further, having someone who interacts with the customer regularly give a warm introduction to your marketing team can also help make the process simpler, as people often who respond to cold emails, even when they’re fans of your brand.
Making the most of your customer lifecycle means all your teams need to be in synch. If they’re not, things might slip through the cracks and customers could be left hanging. Do your best to be intentional about pointing out the areas where others can help, and standardize those processes to make it second nature.
When your whole team works together, your customers get a better experience, and you get better customers.