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customer journey mapping

5 Guiding Principles for Customer Journey Mapping

Over the past year, B2B and B2C companies have poured resources into their customer experience. These investments were not deemed optional “nice to haves,” either. Given how quickly consumer behavior, expectations, and demands are changing, many regard customer journey research, execution, and optimization was—and is—essential.

It’s tempting to assume that customers will continue to interact and transact with businesses—both digital and physical—in a historically consistent manner. Indeed, countless organizations do assume this, designing unchanging, homogenous customer journeys. But we know that people are different and far from static beings. If leaders use unchanging behaviors, expectations, and demands as the foundation for their customer journey mapping (the spine along which all customer experience efforts rest), they will achieve nothing but organizational inertia.

It is not surprising then that as many as 30% of all organizations with established customer journey maps struggle to use them effectively to prioritize customer experience plans. 

The problem with the traditional mapping methodology is that it focuses on a customer’s what, not their how or why. It traces a customer’s linear forward progress and little more. The whole process is rooted in the belief that customers move from point A to point B to point C and so on. The assumption is that they never skip forward or loop back. Researchers have previously disregarded deviations from the prescribed plan as edge cases.

This methodology also assumes that most customers are remarkably uniform: equal stimulation and motivation; identical paths to their outcomes; regular pace; and unerring compliance to the map. It also accepts that people immediately pursue their needs to completion—purchasing something, signing up for a trial, downloading an asset. That is, they assume all customer journeys culminate in a transaction.  

None of this is further from the truth.

Much like their reality, modern customer journeys must be multidimensional. Customers connect and converse with businesses in diverse ways. In fact, interactions with a business are no longer just about buying something. Customers engage with brand stories, events, people, and more. The customer-company relationship is as relational as it is transactional

Given that customers are emerging from a period of great uncertainty and change, they expect businesses to cater to their new routines, behaviors, and priorities. There is a fundamental need to look beyond homogenous personas because small snapshots of imaginary people reflect a small sliver of reality. A marketing executive at a thriving startup and a marketing executive at a failing enterprise company may fall into the same persona—but they are nothing alike. They face diverse challenges and objectives. Personas alone tell nothing. Insight into circumstances and motivations reveal a lot more. 

Clearly, we need new ways to think about, design, and implement customer journeys. To come out ahead, customer experience leaders and journey architects must embrace these new principles.

Principle #1: People are active buyers, not passive consumers

In the early-1900s, academics argued that media – newspaper, radio, and more – was a “magic gun” capable of firing messages directly into audience heads without their knowledge. The viewer was passive, their consumption and reaction unconscious. But American sociologist Elihu Katz demolished this notion.

Through his Uses and Gratification Theory (UGT), Katz argued that audience members are active, not passive consumers. They seek out media to their specific benefit: education, identification, entertainment, social interaction, or escapism. It is an approach that has found a home, not just in media, but also in consumer behavior.

Just as someone sitting in front of their television can choose between hundreds of channels, customers often face hundreds of products or services. They actively turn to a product that best satisfies a need. 

Historically, companies have built buyer journeys around products or services—a cell phone package, bookkeeping service, or similar. To design the journey, designers worked backward from commercial endpoints. This follows the same mistake as early media theories. It sees consumers as passive, not active. 

Today’s buyers, when considering a purchase, spend only 17% of that time meeting with potential suppliers and 45% of the time researching independently. More than half of millennials would prefer not to speak with a salesperson at all. 

When applied to buyer journeys, UGT reorients mapping around the individual needs or fundamental gratification, asking, “What does each person hope to achieve from their interaction with the business?”. Take it further by asking “How do we align to customer preferences better?” and “What are the gaps we need to fill?”. This framing naturally segues into the jobs-to-be-done theory.

The theory, first presented by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, advises leaders to sell not the product, but the “job” of their products and services. For example, when consulting for McDonald’s, Christensen famously illustrated that a milkshake’s job wasn’t to appease someone’s sweet tooth. It was a handy snack for commuters who needed breakfast on the move.

By understanding the milkshake’s job, designing a product that executes it perfectly, and delivering it in a way that reinforced the intended use, Christensen ensured McDonald’s customers loved the new product. By following his lead, organizations can create products and services that customers want to “hire” to get their “job” done. 

Principle #2: Motivations are varied and decisions are illogical

Once upon a time, we believed that people were rational. Particularly in economics, scholars and policymakers assumed that individuals would select choices that were in their best interest. However, six decades of psychology research thoroughly dismantled this concept. Researchers like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky discovered that our behaviors are riddled with irrationality and bias. The good news is that our irrationality is predictable. 

“Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless,” wrote Dan Ariely, Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University in his book ‘Predictably Irrational’. “They are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains.”

This means customers, despite your best efforts, often go off-script, making it impossible to plot a perfectly logical path to an end. This doesn’t render traditional methods of mapping journeys wrong—merely incomplete. Capturing touchpoints will not paint a useful picture of a journey. But by extending one’s understanding of customer behavior, leaders can map and model journeys more realistically.

To encompass both virtues and vices, Richard Chase, professor of Operations Management at Marshall School of Business, and Sriram Dasu, associate professor at Marshall, highlight three particular behavioral quirks journey designers and leaders ought to take note of:

  • Sequence Effects: People rarely recall an entire experience. Instead, they remember the peaks and troughs, glossing over ordinary and expected experiences.
  • Duration Effects: The passage of time is subjective and relative. Largely, people don’t pay attention to duration if it’s in line with their expectations. But they do notice when a half-hour bank appointment lasts 90 minutes. 
  • Rationalization Effects: All effects have a cause and we want to discover them. Unfortunately, when people can’t find an explanation, they concoct one.

Adjusted for such vices, the entire process of designing journeys can rest on a more realistic set of beliefs.

For example, these effects teach that service bookends (the beginning and end of the interaction) are not equally weighted in the eyes of the customer. The latter interaction is likely to be deemed far more important. Therefore, Chase and Dasu advise companies to finish strong, ending with a “substantive bang.”

Another effect concerns pain and pleasure. Because people remember the peaks and troughs, Chase and Dasu recommend organizations segment pleasure (creating several peaks) and combine unpleasant interactions (creating one trough). They also recommend building commitment through choices, making room for consistent rituals, and more.

By extending the understanding of peoples’ economic decisions using psychology, leaders can map journeys that reconcile efficiency journey hypotheses. It’s only by “pricing in” factors like irrationality and bias that journey mapping and delivery centers can promote journeys that consumers will actually stick to.

Principle #3: Purchase process is not linear

Gartner researchers recently endeavored to map out the modern B2B buying process. Their end result wasn’t the linear step-by-step journey many expected. “Buying jobs don’t happen sequentially but more or less simultaneously,” wrote Brent Adamson, Distinguished VP at Gartner. “And if we were to map out a real B2B buying journey, it would look a lot less like a step-by-step linear process and [a] lot more like a big bowl of spaghetti.”

Given motivations are unique and decisions often have no logical basis, customers may jump forward and loop back. They explore the journey on their terms, ticking off the tasks that most interest them at any moment. This development isn’t unique to B2B sales, either.

Today’s consumers flit between recognition, research, evaluation, and selection at will, rendering journeys random and confusing. They communicate with businesses on their terms—their channel, their schedule, their purpose. Organizations responded with omnichannel retail, providing seamless customer experience across devices, locations, and channels.

During the pandemic, Lululemon deployed a WeChat marketing strategy in China, meeting their customers where they wanted to engage. Customer acquisition spiked and the brand’s management rolled out the strategy worldwide. Elsewhere, automakers have taken to TikTok to launch new cars, engage with their audience, and sell vehicles. 

Both B2B and B2C purchase paths are highly divergent. It’s important then for businesses to make it easy for customers to start and end their journeys anywhere—online, in-store, social media, phone, SMS, or instant messaging.

Since a one-size-fits-all ideology is outmoded and ineffective, businesses must place simplification at the heart of their customer journey modeling.

Indeed, Richard Gruner, Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia, and Geoffrey Soutar, Head of the Marketing Discipline Group at the University of Western Australia, discovered that simplification is the best strategy for architecting customer journeys.

“If you identify and communicate your simplification priorities throughout the organization, consider the entire customer journey, embrace internal complexity, and leave room for exceptions,” wrote Gruner in Harvard Business Review, “you’ll be on your way to creating the smooth, simple experience your customers truly want.”

Principle #4: Personas demand circumstantial insights

Think back to the two executives we met in the introduction, both marketing executives. It’s conceivable—even likely—that these two executives are clubbed into the same persona, and pushed towards the same journey. In doing so, the journey would assume the same challenges (pipeline visibility, talent scarcity), goals (revenue growth, productivity improvement), and objections (budget, implementation resources).

If organizations develop personas without context, they risk introducing bias and discriminatory decisions into their customer journeys. In reality, the two marketing executives couldn’t be more different. They hold different priorities, face unique challenges, and covet individual goals. 

While, by themselves, personas are usually directionally accurate, they lack enough insight to deliver a personalized, impactful journey. Here, circumstantial insights can help.

Organizations must collect in-depth contextual information via feedback, surveys, longitudinal studies, and in-depth interviews. That data can provide insights into the circumstances in which a purchase or interaction is happening. By infusing context, you are adding explainability to the persona and promoting a greater understanding of why a person does what they do. That is a far better way of mapping and improving journeys. 

Principle #5: Start with why

We’re on the precipice of a new customer-centric era. Organizations are relinquishing control of their customer conversations. Combined with tremendous variation between organizations and customers, there’s no one universally correct way of journey mapping and implementation. However, the organizing principle for all customer journey mapping processes remains the same: Define the role you want to play in the lives of your customers.

Ultimately, you want to identify the purpose of your company. Why do you exist? Where do you slot into your customers’ lives? How do you actively add and elevate value to their lives? 

The road to successful customer journey mapping requires, first, a mindset that views change as an opportunity for a business to engage customers in new and better ways.

Aligning behind the other four principles of modern customer journey mapping and applying them to your unique circumstances and contexts means you’ll create an outside-in customer journey. Instead of focusing on your processes and procedures, you’ll put your customers, their challenges, and their goals at the heart of everything, leading to a conscious and meaningful mapping of journeys.

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