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The difference between a customer journey and buying stages

header - customer journey vs. buying stages: what's the difference

Lately, I’ve observed many marketers incorrectly discussing the customer journey using buying stage terms. Or visa-versa, describing consumer buying stages using customer journey lingo. And one can understand why there may be blurred lines.

customer journey vs. buying stagesFor example, as a consumer goes through the buying stages, some might call this a journey in decision making. Or as one describes a customer’s purchasing path, they might describe the customer as being involved in a buying stage. The terms can be interchangeable, however let’s clear up any confusion.

The customer journey describes the path a consumer will make toward a purchase, while buying stages describe the consumer decision-making process.


What are the customer buying stages?

The customer buying stages are theoretical framework(s) in marketing designed to describe a consumer’s decision-making process that lead them to a purchase.  
Also known as the ‘consumer buying process,’ or in business to business interactions – the buyer decision process.’

Are you talking about a a marketing funnel?

marketing funnel: the difference between buying stages and customer journeyYou may also hear words like marketing or purchasing funnels to describe this process. I think the visual of a funnel is a great representation for a customer’s purchase intent.

Yes, a marketing funnel, the consumer buying process, customer buying stages, and buyer decision process are all meant to represent the same concept; the decision-making process a customer goes through when procuring a product or service.

I am not talking about a sales funnel. A sales funnel is highly specific to each organization. Sure, there are some similarities, but a sales funnel really captures an operational procedure specific to that organization’s customers and nuance.


To understand the customer buying stages, let’s take a moment to explore what scholars consider to me our normal, human decision-making process.

“Decision making is the process of making choices by identifying a decision, gathering information, and assessing alternative resolutions.”

According to University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, there are seven steps in the decision-making process.

The Decision Making Process as described by Umass Dartmouth

Scholars believe this is the decision-making process we all should go through in order obtain the highest levels of success:

decision making process: buying a carStep 1: Identify the decision

Understand there’s a decision to be made in the first place. Let’s use the example of buying a new (or used car). Your new place of work is 20 miles away from your home, it’s time to stop relying on public transportation and procure a vehicle.

decision making process: optionsStep 2: Gather relevant information

Do your homework and consider your needs vs. wants. Which car(s) satisfy your need? Which dealership treats customers the best? Which car has the best consumer ratings? And more.


decision making process: alternativesStep 3: Identify the alternatives

Alternatives might come in many forms. Instead of a car, will the bus work? Or maybe a motorcycle? What about a bicycle?  The car body type, or level of luxury might be alternatives to consider. Identify them all.


decision making process: weight the evidenceStep 4: Weigh the evidence

Play the “What if…” game. If you got car A, what does that mean to your monthly budget? Does Car ‘B’ mean more funds for travelling vs. Car ‘C’? With a bicycle, will the time lost commuting to work be worth the monetary savings? Make a list, pros and cons, rankings, whatever makes the most sense to you.

Step 5: Choose among alternatives

decision making process: take actionMake a choice.

Step 6: Take action

It’s time to take action on your choice – in our example it’s time to buy a car, bike… or whatever your decision was.

Step 7: Review your decision & its consequences

It’s a day, week, or month later. Was the right choice made?

decision making process: analyze your choice


Now, not all decisions go through such a prescribed process.
If you need to use the restroom or buy a pack of gum, the process is much simpler; have a need or want and satisfy it.

A more involved decision could be anything. Should I get a dog? Do I want to save up for a trip to Fiji? Or should I get married?

[While] In marketing, the buying stages revolve around the decision to transact between parties.

Or put simply… the decision-making process we all go through when we purchase something.


What are the different buying stages’ methodologies?

Well, just like the decision to get a dog, go to the bathroom, or buy a car; there are varying levels in making any decision.

Since marketing’s inception, many folks have put together their own frameworks to try and explain this process – to get inside of the customer’s head. And some methodologies are very much similar to the scholarly definition of the decision-making process.

There are four buying stages’ approaches that generally encompass all the varying frameworks:


1.    ACID – buying stages’ approach

Step 1: Awareness –

Customer is aware they have a new need/want, a decision needs to be made.

Step 2: Consideration –

They are doing their homework, thinking of all the alternatives.

Step 3: Intent –

The customer may have entered the process believing product A was the right choice, and the intent may have stayed or changed during step 2 – either way, they’re ready for a purchase.

Step 4: Decision –

The customer is ready for a purchase and moves down the purchasing path.


Thoughts on ACID:

As you’ll see later, ACID might be the simplest framework. My biggest issue is the lack of follow-up and customer loyalty considerations.


2.    The Loyalty Loop – buying stages’ approach

Step 1: Initialize Consideration Set –

Imagine this as the first two steps of our scholarly decision-making process above.

Step 2: Active Evaluation –

Not only has the homework been done, the customer is actively evaluating the options. What does that mean? In our car example, a customer might test drive each car multiple.

Step 3: Make Purchase –

The customer may have entered the process believing product A was the right choice, and the intent may have stayed or changed during step 2 – either way, they’re ready for a purchase.

Step 4: Loyalty and Post-Purchase Behavior –

The customer is ready for a purchase and moves down the purchasing path.


Thoughts on The Loyalty Loop:

I like the emphasis on post purchase tracking and evaluation; the strong need to keep the customer for life. This considers the entire customer life cycle vs. other frameworks.

I also like the purchase phase is simple – sometimes these methodologies tend to exaggerate the purchase as two or three steps. Even if your buying a house, when it’s time to make the purchase, it’s time. I don’t believe most customers pine over the “intent” stage. NOTE: However, the intent stage is highly relevant in some industries. Think of Boeing’s latest disaster with the 737 Max, in a B2B environment, I might be holding formation in an intent or considering the alternatives phase.


3.    AIDA/R/A (AIDA + AIDARA) – buying stages’ approach

Step 1: Awareness –

Customer is aware they have a new need/want, a decision needs to be made.

Step 2: Interest –

I always liked to think of this step as the initial consideration set for a customer + the homework they’ll complete. E.g. Using our car example, a customer might understand Honda & Toyota vehicles as extremely long-lasting and dependable. Thus, they may do their homework starting with those two automobile manufacturers.

Step 3: Desire –

Similar to our scholarly decision-making process – weighing the evidence, and building a preference toward a purchase.

Step 4: Action –

This step is a combination of the “active evaluation” phase of the loyalty loop combined with the actual purchase. Again, think of the customer taking a test drive. They might fall in love with a Volkswagen and immediately purchase it, or be more patient and write a long list of pros and cons for each (to which a purchase is made after weighing the options).

Step 5: Retention –

AIDA (the first four steps here), are what most marketers learn in school as the classic “marketing funnel.” This step – Retention, was added later as marketers realized it’s cheaper to retain customers than to find new ones. Retention is exactly what it sounds like. The activities that keep customers with a specific product, service or brand. This could be a loyalty program (think of points in the grocery store), or in today’s high-quality-at-a-low-price-point type of market (thinks of Ross/T.J. Maxx/Nordstrom Rack vs. the dying Sears/K-Marts/JC Penney’s) where marketers spending a ton of time with product & place; think Ross tracking it’s customer movements through the store to maximize product layout/exposure.

Step 6: Advocacy –

Another step added to the AIDAR framework is advocacy. If we all agree that retention is extremely important, advocacy is paramount. Not only is it cheaper to keep customers vs. finding new ones, but if that customer turns into a brand ambassador your word-of-mouth marketing soars. A personal example for me is Fruit of the Loom. I wore FoTL boxer briefs for 36 years of my life, growing up I got all my brothers (6) to wear them, and occasionally throughout life the “…which underwear do you wear?” conversation came up and I always responded that Fruit boxer briefs were the best. However, some time ago they changed the product formula and new boxer briefs began falling apart after only a couple weeks. The shape and curvature also changed in the design and the underwear wore very uncomfortably.
I switched to Costco boxer briefs immediately. Advocate disappeared after 36 years.

And advocacy isn’t a simple formula. Whether you subscribe to the 4 marketing Ps (or 5, 6, 7), advocacy involves all stages in marketing to get right.


Thoughts on AIDARA:

I can’t emphasize steps 5 and 6 enough. Win an advocate and your sales can expand exponentially.

AIDARA is my go-to framework when putting together a client’s go-to-market plan or tactical plan.


4.    Job To Be Done (JTBD), aka “consumer buying process” – buying stages’ approach

Step 1: Problem Recognition –

This framework considers decisions and problems that need a solution as one in the same. E.g. I have a problem getting to my new job, a car might be a solution. The customer is aware they have a problem, time to figure it out.

Step 2: Information Search –

Like our scholarly definition, this is the homework phase.

Step 3: Evaluation –

Referencing our Loyalty Loop once again, this is very similar to the Active Evaluation step.

Step 4: Purchase –

The customer is ready for a purchase.

Step 5: Post-Purchase Evaluation –

This is more about understanding the customer’s post-purchase behavior. Did the purchase solve the originally identified problem? If so, and the satisfaction level was high you may have built a return customer (or better yet, an evangelist).


Thoughts on JTBD:

First all, you might not know this framework by the name “Job To Be Done.” Most know it as the sole consumer buying process. However, calling it the “consumer buying process” wouldn’t be 100% correct. Some marketers also add a sixth step to this framework for the purchasing decision (separating the decision from the action).

In the digital marketing world, this framework is used more than the rest. I use it while building client marketing strategies (digital or traditional) as I like the combined advocacy and retention step vs. AIDARA. If you google, “consumer buying process” or “customer buying stages” this framework is 90% of the results.



customer journey: what is it?What is a customer journey?

Now it’s time to talk about the customer journey.

The customer journey is the path (start to finish) the customer traverses to complete a transaction with a business. Think of it like the yellow brick road. Consumer’s travel along a path (whether it’s digital or physical) to purchase a product or service. And just like Dorothy, that path may be riddled with barriers along the way causing major friction or maybe even impeding them from completion.


Let’s start with a simple, retail example in the real world.

A customer needs milk.

They go through a quick decision-making process (the buying stages) and conclude the convenience store is where they should go. The customer grabs their keys and purse, hop in the car, and drive over to the convenience store.

customer journey: path start to finishThe customer gets to the store and soon discovers there are two different brands for a gallon of milk. This individual also makes note that the name brand milk is $2.59 / gallon, the generic brand milk is $1.99 / gallon.

And while the customer really wants a gallon of milk, they come to realize the generic brand, half-gallon milk is on sale for $0.75 / each.

The customer buys two, generic brand, half-gallon milk products and returns home.

If you’re a marketer for the generic brand of milk, this might be one of your customer journeys.


And you may have multiple customer journeys…

Path 1 might be physical, path 2 digital, path 3 word of mouth, etc. Or, they might all be digital with different origination points: direct (straight to a site), from amazon, from a complimentary site, from earned media, etc.

Mapping multiple customer journeys
Mapping multiple customer journeys


Customer Journey vs. Buying stages

Going through all these buying stages’ frameworks and what the customer journey is – you can understand why people combine (or mix) the two up.
customer journey and buying stages combinedAnd combining the customer journey along the decision-making process can be a very advantageous exercise.

As a customer moves through their journey, they may be going through their decision-making process at the exact same time.

E.g. Using our milk example, the customer may have decided it was just too expensive at the convenience store and drove across the street to the grocery store (another journey to consider).



What is customer journey mapping?

Whether you combine the two activities or leave them entirely disparate, mapping the customer journey is exactly as it sounds (and is displayed above).

Customer journey mapping is:

  1. Identifying the path(s) customers travel to purchase your product. This could be various marketing channels, physical routes, digital routes, complimentary routes, etc.
  2. Take each path and document the steps from start to finish. Think of our milk example, the customer needed milk, went to the convenience store, compared products, made purchase, returned home.
  3. Document customer pain points. Be sure to document pain points. Price, friction, anything that might inhibit a clean path to purchase


NOTE: There’s no right or wrong way to do this. One map might focus on the journey from social media to purchase, while another documents production to wholesale.


The Gist? Why do either of these concepts matter in marketing?


Imagine building out buying stages and discovering your product/brand isn’t in the consideration set (due to an issue you found in your research).

Or imagine discovering an entirely new customer journey where 20% of sales are coming from an external complimentary product (think of peanut butter and jelly).

Whether you combine the two activities into one or leave them disparate, these activities can save and/or make your organization a lot of money.


Tips for defining consumer buying stages.

  • Write the stages down on a piece of paper or whiteboard and just start filling them out – go off of your experience and intuition first. Map our what you think the customer is thinking and how deep that decision-making goes. Then objectively try to prove or disprove what is in front of you.
  • Use visual queues if you need to. If funnel imagery works for your brain, use that. If bullet lists work, go for it. There’s no right or wrong way.
  • Should I combine this with my customer journey(s)?
    1. I like to keep these two activities separate. Why? While I do find value occasionally in the combination of the two, 9 times out of 10 you’ll have multiple customer journeys to consider. Defining a customer’s decision-making process for your product doesn’t usually change depending on the avenue of consumption. You may end up with 3 distinct customer journeys and they all went through the same buying stages. It’s redundant to document the stages over and over again.

Tips for documenting the customer journey.

  1. Keep it simple stupid (KISS). E.g. Don’t document the 800 micro steps that a potential customer takes to get into their car and drive to your location. Just state “consumer drives from home to store,” I think everyone understands this statement.
  2. Any point of friction needs extra work. Really try to understand where the friction is and why it’s happening (then you and/or your team can work to fix).


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