Skip to main content

It's the customer's journey, not yours

boy hanging out of car window

We are in the era of customer-centricity – in all its manifestations.

In a nutshell

  1. Customer experience has become a core focus in business, despite the fact that the jury is still out in many companies as to where in the organisation customer experience sits.
  2. Tools have evolved to enable companies to become more customer-centric, one of these is journey mapping. 
  3. Successful journey mapping takes into account the context and emotions of a customer's life, and their unique perspective as opposed to the organisation's.

By which we mean focusing on the customer’s needs and putting customers at the centre of the company’s thinking. Further, some companies have truly adopted a more compassionate and empathetic way of being in regard to those they serve – their customers. By definition this requires a better understanding of what makes people tick, what they care about and what their lives are like and the rules that govern how they behave and make decisions.

Any new era or new way of thinking spawns new frameworks and tools to aid the development of theory, strategy and execution. Look back at any period in history and there will be examples of technology or systems that grew to meet the needs of the time. So too with customer-centricity, where there are a number of frameworks, models and tools that have evolved to drive customer-centricity within marketing, sales, operations, new product development and transformation teams.

There is plenty of evidence that performing well on customer experience is not an idealised altruistic goal but instead delivers a clear payback in terms of business lost or gained. Crudely put, it delivers dollars to the bottom line. So not surprisingly customer experience as a new function has become a core goal in business, despite the fact that the jury is still out in many companies as to where in the organisation customer experience sits.

Aside from these internal frameworks and the reorganisation of companies to become more customer-centric, external facing tools have also evolved. Two that dominate are journey mapping and voice of the customer (VOC) platforms.

The customer experience as a journey

When a framework or a metaphor rapidly becomes common currency, it’s not usually difficult to see why its meme rating is so high. People get it, it feels right, they can use it, it’s easy to communicate. And it helps if it is visual.

Customer experience journey maps meet all of these requirements. We understand maps – from the childhood memories of treasure maps to the excitement of getting out the atlas to plan the big OE – so we can see how the metaphor works, but why is it so powerful as a tool to represent customer experience?

There are two forces that together make customer experience appear to be linear, journey-like and therefore map-able.

The first is that the starting point for most companies when they look at customer experience is the company’s processes and touch points. By necessity these have an operationally sequenced structure.

The complexity of the processes often breaks these down into micro functions and touch points. Steps and stages are sequenced – one thing has to happen before the next stage and so on. The visual manifestation of this is linear with a start and a finish and therefore feels like a journey.

If we turn this inside out and look at it from the customer’s perspective instead, superficially the process also appears linear – something triggers the start of the process and their experience progresses along a path to purchase and at the end the experience has led them to a destination.

The definition of a journey may vary by the nature of the journey, but there is enough common understanding for us all to see that something with a start and a finish and that follows a linear process fits the definition. And a journey map is a great metaphor for showing the route.

So far so good. The problem with great metaphors is that we forget that is what they are – a metaphor. As the greatest proponent of semantics Alfred Korzybski said, “the map is not the same as the territory”.

Does it matter? Yes, it matters a lot, because it can lead us astray and send us off in the wrong direction completely – we can miss critical opportunities to not just change and tweak but to transform the customer’s experience of our brand.

young boy holding a map

The owner of the map determines the route

We should first consider whose map we are looking at. By definition if we are looking at the customer’s experience then we should surely start with the customer’s perception of the journey. But very often internal thinking drives a touch point analysis of the journey, thus ignoring the parts of the process that fall outside of specific company interactions.

The argument being that the company can only control its own touch points. It can’t, for example, do anything about the traffic that someone might encounter on the way to the store, or the speed of someone’s broadband when they are looking a company up. They certainly can’t control the fact that a couple may have had an argument about money before they sit down in the bank to talk about their mortgage options.

So if touch points are all you can control – is that all you should try and map?

Absolutely not. Context is hugely influential on how people approach your touch points, and how they will assess the experience. A company touch point map has numerous limitations, not least that it fails to put the customer at the centre of the experience.

It may feel as if it is addressing customer experience and therefore customer-centricity, but it is like the corny waiter jokes “apart from the fly in your soup sir was everything else OK?”. Imagine the customer being asked to complete a questionnaire rating how well they understood the menu, how quickly the food arrived, whether the right dish was provided and the open ended comments relating to insect life would be coded under ‘other’.

And, it is more serious than this implies because re-designing or amending a company’s touch point delivery can be costly. For example, increasing the number of people available to answer the phones may seem like the solution to address the customer’s apparent dissatisfaction with the length of the wait, increasing the overhead costs as a consequence.

But working with a company who managed after sales service queries for an automotive client, we were able to show that the customer's anxiety about whether their problem would be solved was creating tension. Sending clear information telling people how they would be looked after if they had any problems would remove the anxiety and lower the stress around telephone response times more cost effectively than reducing wait times. This was a case of emotion playing a much bigger part in people’s memory of the journey. Their estimates of how long they had waited were directly correlated to their emotional state.

We found very similar correlations between remembered experiences and emotional states when working in Christchurch after the earthquake. Insurance customers’ stories of their customer experiences just didn’t tie up with the factual reality of the experience, so improving the experience wasn’t about tweaking processes to improve them but required a much more fundamental change in approach which we were able to guide our client through.

Some maps are better at getting you from A to B than others

So it is the customer’s journey from their perspective – and that means their emotional as well as physical experience – that offers us the most value in building meaningful and useful journey maps.

This is where we must heed the concept of the map not being the territory. A customer’s experience reflects their reality which goes through many filters and we need to understand these to make sense of our map.

Context is everything

“Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all.” – Gregory Bateson

When we talk about context we can mean environmental influences, social context or we can also mean the expectations a person has when they set off on the journey. For example, their reasons for starting the process can be the single biggest driver of how they will experience the journey.

Recent work mapping the shopper journey in an FMCG category showed vastly different perceptions of the journey based on the context of what initiated the start of the process.

Tapping into unconscious journeys

People can be largely unaware of their behaviour in regard to touch points – in some decision making journeys observation is a valuable adjunct to direct questioning or even the only useful tool. Observation can be digital as well as physical so, for example, we can monitor people’s search behaviour on their devices (yes, we do ask permission first and participants have to install a simple tool) and this invariably shows a very different behaviour from what people will describe if we rely just on reported behaviour. People can’t remember what they do and their memories are biased in so many ways. Reported behaviour is a very poor quality data input into most journey maps.

All sorts of cognitive biases also affect the way we make decisions and interact with touch points – these can range from learned behaviour patterns to irrational rules of thumb that determine how we behave. How we offer people choices at touch points can significantly affect not just the decisions made but also how they perceive the experience, so a deep understanding of these cognitive processes elevates the insights and creates action-oriented outputs.

Emotional journeys

And then there is emotion which has a huge impact on how we remember our experiences with brands. We know that people remember how they felt about an experience better than they remember the specifics about what actually happened. We’ve all had the experience of seeing someone and knowing they were familiar but not being able to remember how we know them. Yet what you will know for sure is whether you liked them or not, i.e. how you felt about them.

So much of what we now understand about human behaviour stems from how we respond emotionally. Carefully mapping the emotions at different points along the journey – whether or not they relate to specific touch points – allows us to plot the moments of truth and the points when we can make the biggest difference to the customer’s experience.

It is important to recognise that emotions are very often unconscious and are always experienced in the moment – think of these as hot spots. Then think of the consequence of asking someone about their experience away from that hot spot. Unless you use stimulus that triggers the involuntary emotional response of the hot spot you won’t ever see or understand it.

There are many ways of circumventing these problems but first you have to recognise them and put a research method in place that addresses them. We’ve put together a few guidelines that will help to ensure your journey in journey mapping puts the whole customer experience centre stage.  

Journey mapping guidelines

  1. Don’t start from your own systems and touch points. Let the customer construct the journey and provide their context.
  2. Accept the irrationality of decision making and work with it, not against it – get familiar with cognitive biases and influences on decision making.
  3. Map emotions to better understand the experience and don’t rely on memory, but use it to understand the critical emotional points in the journey.
  4. Don’t rely on reported behaviour, track real behaviour physically, digitally or through data analytics.
  5. Make sure you know what the core drivers of your customer journey map are and ensure the design of the map reflects these – not all journeys are linear, get creative about the visualisation of the customer’s perspective on the journey.
  6. Don’t reduce the tool to a one size fits all – if you start with a pre-determined model of CEx design, the outputs of your map will already be pre-determined and you will miss the crucial insights.
Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

back to top

Discover more content

Stay in touch!

Sign up to receive our latest thinking straight to your inbox each month.