When Does the "Customer" Experience Begin?

Customer Strategy
Customer Experience
Whenever I see a Chevy Camaro my heart rate revs up. Seriously.

Whenever I see a Chevy Camaro my heart rate revs up. Seriously. If I'm driving and see one parked, I slow down to ogle it. If I'm on the highway and see one up ahead, I'll try to catch up with it to check it out. I'm so struck by them that I feel like I'm cheating on my Ford Mustang whenever I gaze longingly at that sleek masterpiece of a muscle car. Earlier this week at the Inbound Marketing Summit social media expert Chris Brogan, president of Human Busienss Works, was talking about social influence and mentioned the Cadillac CTS--another car I think looks fabulous. He told a story about when he tweeted the question, "If I think the Cadillac CTS is hot, does that make me an old man?" Within minutes he received more than 100 replies; 98 percent said no, that the car was sexy or that they owned one.

These two things got me thinking about the customer experience and when it actually begins. As a prospective customer, does your experience start during random conversations about a product or service that you might purchase down the road? Does it begin when you see an ad for something that piques your interest? Or perhaps when you start to take a potential purchase seriously and begin conducting research or increasing your brand interactions?

It seems to me that my first moment seeing the new Camaro parked on the street near my house was where the "customer" experience began for me--even though I have yet to purchase one or even visit a Chevy dealership. I circled the car like a shark, inspecting every angle. I started keeping an eye out for them, talking them up at every opportunity. Yet, I wasn't really considering a purchase. I love my Mustang
and wasn't ready to part with it. I've had it since 2005 and still smile whenever
I see it.

Then one day a while back when I was on Livestrong tracking my fitness activity for the day, I was served an ad for the Camaro. I clicked through and spent a good 10 minutes examining the car in every color and from every angle. I read all the specs and pricing. I moved from pining to consideration. So, is that where the customer experience actually began? Perhaps. But, perhaps not. I'm still not ready to part with my Mustang.

A couple of months ago I received an email from Ford with a link to a website where you can customize a Mustang and share it on Facebook. I never shared my burnt orange, fire-decaled creation; but I did spend about 15 minutes on the site building various versions of my "ideal" Mustang. It rekindled the flame for me, enhancing the Mustang customer experience I have every day.

At some point my Mustang will be ready to retire, and I'll need a new car. Will it be another Mustang, a Camaro, or perhaps even the more sophisticated Cadillac CTS? I don't know. But I do know that I feel like my customer experience has already begun for the two cars I don't own. What do you think? When does the "customer" experience begin?